Nearly two decades old, Bunim Murray Productions is the grandfather of reality programming, a dubious sounding distinction for a company that prides itself on being cutting edge in the new media arena.
The Van Nuys-based company made its name by creating the culturally iconic "The Real World" for MTV and the hit reality TV series "The Simple Life," which starred Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton for Fox. Now Bunim Murray has spawned an offspring that company executives are hoping will carry on the hip-youth legacy: M Theory Entertainment.
Joachim "JB" Blunck, a math and tech whiz and a founder of the alternative Baltimore City Paper, heads the wholly owned subsidiary. The new media think tank exists solely to become the new go-to shop for new ways to develop and distribute studio and network reality content.
New as in, not-yet-dreamed of.
"What will work and what does the audience really want? That question hasn't been answered yet," Blunck said. "There's a lot of thrashing around We've seen a lot of repurposing of existing content, but we have not seen a lot of groundbreaking next-generation applications yet.
"We have to convince ourselves that the audience will embrace it," said Blunck, wary of going into too much detail. M Theory is working behind closed doors on their next big release, a closely guarded secret that should hit the digital street in a year or less.
"We made our mark by reinventing storytelling ... I can tell you we have lots of cool things and they do not smell, look or feel like what's out there now."
Bunim Murray was among the first production companies to realize the Internet's potential in extending the life of, and eventually becoming a second home for, TV content.
"It was figuring out a way to financially and technologically make it work that was the initial challenge," Chief Executive Joey Carson said.
It was the success of the mini-episodes of MTV shows for the Web, which were a hit and spawned four spin-offs like "The Gauntlet" and "The Inferno" that drove the company to head toward a digital future.
There were lessons learned along the way. There are clear limitations to cell content, the most obvious being bandwidth and streaming rates, but also the type of content that can be viewed clearly. Football, for instance, doesn't fly because the fast camera movement can cause blurring and distortion.
Bunim Murray's formula really clicked when the company put out 36 "mobisodes" blurbs designed to be viewed on mobile phones of "The Simple Life" in 2005. The one-minute takes featured never-before-seen footage of Hilton and Richie's adventures and were available for download for 99 cents each.
Sold on the concept of producing or repurposing content for platforms other than TV, the company's primary goal now is to forge distribution alliances. They've already partnered with other youth-bent players: L.A.-based mobile service upstart Amp'd Mobile and mobile content company Proteus among them.
So what does M Theory say about the naysayers, those who say the revolution is not here yet and that people really don't like to watch content on their handheld devices, iPods or wireless phones?
A study released this summer by Knowledge Networks, for example, found that half the subscribers to mobile video services don't watch video (the laptop was the most popular tool for mobile video viewing). The study also showed that 50 percent of subscribers to cell phone services like Verizon's VCast don't access the video content.
Carson pointed out that the comparisons of mobile content to television are off base, likening it instead to the consumer transition from radio to television more than half a century ago.
"I don't see how any business or brand that needs to reach consumers can ignore the fundamental shift that has taken place," Carson said of the way people consume media.
"There has been a fundamental shift in the way we communicate and some are slower than others to catch on to that."
It's direct feedback, rather than market research that has Carson convinced the new platforms will take off. The firm receives more than 20,000 submissions of tapes and exhaustive questionnaires from young wannabe reality stars, he said.
"What we come away with is an intuitive feel of what is important to the youth culture at any given time," Carson said. "We're always in production on any of our shows, so we have year round contact with the audience. This allows us to see trends in real time that other brands or marketers may not be able to be as closely in touch with."
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