Survivor was the earthquake that shook broadcast television and changed it forever, when it premiered in the summer of 2000, ending with a finale that had the second-largest TV audience of the decade, behind only Friends.
But before then came a show that basically became reality TV crossroads: Making the Band. While it produced a boy band, O-Town, that’s still around today, the ABC series brought the language of reality TV from cable to broadcast TV and foreshadowed so many shows to come, from American Idol to Project Runway to The Apprentice.
Before Survivor there was Making the Band, and before that…
A full two months before Survivor Borneo premiered, ABC premiered Making the Band. March 24, 2000, was a Friday night, and the show was part of ABC’s TGIF lineup. But it was not a family-oriented sit-com. It was unscripted.
Reality TV had finally found its way to a broadcast network, although MTV had been having great success with The Real World, its 1990s breakout hit. But broadcast TV had not yet aired an episodic, character-driven, narrative unscripted show.
In the summer of 1999, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? awoke broadcast TV from its let’s-just-clone-Friends slumber, with both Regis Philbin and the show becoming nationwide phenomena. A show with real people being themselves was suddenly the highest-rated show on TV.
While it was fueled by human drama, it was essentially a game show.
Months later, on Feb. 15, 2000, 23 million people watched a Fox special on which two strangers—Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell—got married after a Miss America-style pageant. It was called Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and it turned a TV moment and real people’s lives into weeks of celebrity tabloid fodder, especially after The Smoking Gun published a restraining order that Rockwell had been the subject of years earlier.
It was the brainchild of Fox executive Mike Darnell, who’d go on to launch shows from Temptation Island to American Idol, was then known for the nutty, allegedly real-life, cheap, high-rated specials he developed at Fox, including When Animals Attack and Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction.
The show was produced by Mike Fleiss, who’d go on to create The Bachelor, and while Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? was basically a two-hour pageant, the two shows share a lot of DNA.
In 2015, Fleiss told HuffPost, “Not many people draw that obvious connection, but it’s true. I’m all about studying the ratings, and that show [‘Multi-Millionaire’] was incredible. It set the world on fire. I realize that there was an irresponsible quality to it in that we were marrying off strangers essentially. So, I said, ‘How can I create a show that has the power of ‘Multi-Millionaire,’ but do it in a more responsible, relatable romantic fashion?’”
But it’d take two years before The Bachelor arrived on ABC. Making the Band was first—and so early that, when I went back and read reporting from 2000 about the show, no one called it “reality TV.”
Some, like TV critic Joyce Millman’s review in Salon, referred to it as a “reality series,” while others just talked about it as if it was a documentary. The Orlando Sentinel called it “a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a pop group called O-Town.”
The Real World’s creators bring reality TV to ABC
Making the Band was produced by the same production company that gave birth to The Real World: Bunim-Murray, and its founders Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray.
The idea for the show originated at MTV, where Ken Mok—who’d go on to create America’s Top Model and Tough Enough— was leading MTV Productions, and the show was sold to ABC. Bunim-Murray, who had a track record of successful reality TV, was brought in to produce.
Jon Murray—who’d brought a journalism/documentary background to his partnership with Bunim, who’d come from soap operas— told me that one of the appeals of the new show was that it wasn’t creating something from scratch: the framework, at least, already existed.
“Lou Perlman had been hugely successful with Backstreet [Boys] and ‘NSync, and seemed to have this formula for how you create a boy band,” Murray said. “And he had this operation in Orlando, Transcontinental Records, all set up. So as a producer, I’m going, Great, there’s this world that’s already created. It’s an authentic world. And there’s a formula—there’s a process of boot camp.“
While there was a format and a competition, it was still filmed documentary-style, following people as they went through the process of being tested and trained to be part of a boy band. It was more Real World than Survivor or American Idol.
Casting Making the Band—and O-Town
Making the Band breezed through the casting process in its first two half-hour episodes, relegating a lot of the singing and dancing to montages and split screens.
But watching those episodes is like watching a preview of what’s to come over the next few years as reality TV branched out. Before American Idol showed us lines of people waiting to audition for a singing competition, Making the Band gave us that. Before we saw people auditioning in front of judges, or being whittled down—there it was on ABC.
Seeing potential contestants or candidates whittled down seems normal now, but it was rare to see behind the scenes back then.
It was The Real World that pioneered including casting as part of a reality show. MTV started airing casting specials to preview the upcoming season, including one before The Real World Hawaii where rejected cast member Colin Mortensen hosted the casting special, before being told—on-camera—by producers that they’d also chosen him for the cast.
While Lou Pearlman had a formula for creating a boy band, Bunim-Murray needed to cast a TV show.
“Where he might just be looking at the voices, we were also looking at these people as their personality, their backstory,” Jon Murray told me. “How are they going to be interesting characters? What personal story do they bring to this? We also found it was very important to have some diversity in the casting—both of we and ABC felt that was important.”
There was geographic and racial diversity, but not so much in sexuality. While Real World had diversity in sexuality—casting gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people, and also giving television its first same-sex wedding and first HIV-positive cast member—Making the Band did not.
Boy bands were, of course, very straight: ‘NSync did have a gay member, Lance Bass, though he didn’t come out until 2006. Murray said that, while casting the group that’d eventually become O-Town, “we were very open to having someone from the LGBTQ community in the show, a gay guy.” While he said there may have been a gay or bisexual man in the group of people who were considered, “we weren’t going to out someone sure if they weren’t out yet. So I think we just sort of took them for who they said they were.”
During the first episode, a group of guys was selected, and later narrowed from 25 semi-finalists to eight finalists to five members of the band: Ashley Parker Angel, Jacob Underwood, Erik-Michael Estrada, Trevor Penick, and Ikaika Kahoano.
Later, in drama worthy of The Real Housewives, Ikaika dramatically left the show, “recalled” to Hawaii by his family; later, he and two of the guys who were cut, Bryan Chan and Mike Miller, formed their own boy band: LMNT.
Although they were competing to become part of a boy band and potentially international super stars, the guys “weren’t jaded,” Murray said. “There was a real honesty and maybe, on their part, a little bit naive, a little bit— you know, a real genuineness.”
They were on the show for fame, of course, but as part of a boy band, not as a TV star.
The boy band craze
Why did Making the Band become part of ABC’s TGIF? At that time, in 1999 and 2000, “boy bands were at their height,” Murray said, and that was the motivation for the series: “to be able to go behind the scenes and see a boy band come together, and tell that story that would be very appealing to the TGIF audience.”
“There would be stories of potentially romance and complications for the guys as they begin to get fame,” Murray said. Those stories did resonate and reach younger viewers, though not a larger audience. Season two was pulled from ABC and went to MTV.
At the time, EW reported that it “averaged a meager 4.7 million viewers after only two outings in April (which is why the net promptly yanked it). That’s a far cry from the nearly 7 million who tuned in during season 1.” And while 7 million would be a great audience today, back then it was not.
Executive producer Ken Mok told EW, “Viewership is not that great, but it’s still a demographic bull’s-eye. It has a strong core of teens.”
Teens’ attention to boy bands had an effect on the contestants, Murray said. “They wanted this chance—not unlike what you eventually with American Idol. They wanted this chance to break through, and here was Lou Perlman, who had done it twice so successfully with those two groups: Oh my god, I just have to basically show up and he’s going to take the talent I have, and he’s gonna put me with three or four other guys and he’s going to mold me into this phenomenon.”
Years before NBC’s The Apprentice or Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race gave all the decision-making power to a single person, Making the Band did that, giving Pearlman that power, and making him one of the central cast members.
“He’s sort of an unlikely TV personality. I think if we had like, contrived this show and gone out to sort of cast the person who was going to put this band together, you would not be casting someone who in any shape or form looked or acted like Lou Pearlman. But again, that was it,” Murray told me.
“He was the kingmaker, he was the person who was going to be making the final decision,” he added. “He had done it successfully. So there was every reason to put our confidence in his ability to do that.”
Pearlman died in prison in 2010, convicted of money laundering and other charges related to a Ponzi scheme. Murray said that, “in terms of his interactions with me and the production, [Pearlman] was great. He was very above-board with us. We had a great working relationship with him.”
Making the Band was full of behind-the-scenes talent
Making the Band was so ahead of its time, its first and second episodes even have panels of people deliberating—which also came with some fascinating fourth-wall breakage. Among those discussing the selection of the eight finalists with Pearlman is ABC executive Andrea Wong, who was on camera talking about the future cast of that very show.
Wong was “really the person at ABC that saw the potential for this as a TGIF show. At that time, the idea of a reality series just wasn’t around in prime time. So it was a big breakthrough,” Jon Murray told me.
Andrea Wong went on to develop The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, before moving on to run Lifetime Networks and later lead Sony Pictures’ international TV production.
Many of the other people in the credits of Making the Band went on to shape the future of reality TV, including:
- Casting director Laura Korkoian, who went on to become the showrunner of A&E’s Born This Way, and had previously been showrunner of The Real World Seattle.
- Cris Abrego, who is currently CEO of Endemol Shine America, was the show’s production manager, and went on to co-found 51 Minds Entertainment, which created shows such as The Surreal Life and Flavor of Love
- Director Teri Kennedy, who went on to be a producer on Survivor and run unscripted TV at Ryan Seacrest Productions
- Showrunner Clay Newbill, who went on to run shows from The Mole to Shark Tank, which he still produces. He’d been working on Bunim-Murray shows for years, having been a producer on The Real World San Francisco, and having produced the Road Rules pilot and then showrunning it for years.
The band plays on
The first few seconds of Making the Band—which were repeated as part of the title sequence in future episodes—have on-screen text that says, “Look into a world, behind the scenes, on the road to fame.”
That behind-the-scenes look lasted for three seasons total, after which P. Diddy came in and led three more incarnations of Making the Band, each of which had several seasons. (And soon, Diddy will be bringing the show back.)
O-Town broke up in 2003, and Ashley Parker Angel went solo, both in music and reality TV: He had his own show, There and Back and went on to starring in Broadway productions.
But Erik Michael Estrada, Dan Miller, Trevor Penick, and Jacob Underwood reunited in 2013, and have since toured and released two records, including an album last year.
What premiered on ABC 20 years ago was a show that didn’t shatter ratings records or become a pop culture phenomenon. But like one of those CGI drops in the “Liquid Dreams” video, Making the Band landed on the TV landscape and rippled out, and continue to reverberate to this day.