Magic is in the air, or at least on the airwaves. “Masters of Illusion” did well enough for CW last year to make an order for 13 more episodes materialize – and that’s after being canceled by MyNetworkTV in 2009. It joins the network’s other magic show, the British ITV production “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” as well as magic programs gaining traction on basic cable. TruTV’s “The Carbonaro Effect” will be back for a second season, while “Wizard Wars” returns to Syfy in January for six additional episodes. Even shows that don’t have magic as a focus are shuffling it into the deck: “American Masters” is kicking off a new season January 23 with an episode about master magician Ricky Jay, and Nat Geo’s “Brain Games,” regularly tosses a sleight-of-hand artist into the mix.
Reality TV trends come and go, but magic seems an especially odd choice for a 21st century crowd. At a time when we expect CGI to erase wrinkles, create starships and generate exotic backdrops a production couldn’t otherwise afford, something as low-fi and stubbornly retro as picking a card or stealing a wallet seems downright radical. So why magic, and why now?
For audiences, magic could be just a breath of fresh air, something (sort of) new in the sea of naked adventurers, pawn brokers and oddball families that clutter reality TV. “In a cluttered television landscape, magic shows can grab and hold attention because audiences love to be let in on the secret that something is about to happen,” Chris Linn, president and head of programming at truTV, said to Indiewire. “They delight in the surprising response and then want to be the first to share what they’ve discovered.”
Magic may also be coming full circle; so “out” it’s “in” again, like facial hair and legwarmers. It used to be that performing a magic trick was an automatic party fail; now it’s so rare as to be a charming anomaly. “Magic is timeless, crosses demographics, is constantly unpredictable, and continues to evolve creatively. It’s a classic form of entertainment,” Justin Rosenblatt, senior vice president of alternative programming at the CW, said.
But a renewed fondness for magic’s old school charms isn’t the whole picture. While the current slate of magic programming varies wildly, the main attraction – magic itself – can be as inexpensive as a deck of cards. For anyone looking at the ROI, it’s an easy sell. “If I’m a programmer, and I’m looking at a show and thinking ‘I can do this for $175,000 an episode or $75,000 an episode, I’m thinking that I’m saving the budget, plus I’m delivering a magic show. It’s a way of covering my butt when I go to my boss,” said Tony Reynolds, a producer currently crowdfunding the upcoming reality show, “A Second Chance with Ted Williams.”
It’s an easy sell… to a point. While production manager Peter Terrill added that, “if you can figure out a show where you don’t have to do hair and make-up, you can get by with two to three cameras instead of four or more,” he doesn’t see magic as an automatic budget-slasher. Factors such as cheap locations, a thrifty producer and non-union productions are often more important factors in keeping costs down than the actual magic act.
Ironically, some aspects of performing magic on screen can be expensive in ways that don’t give viewers eye candy in return. “More complicated shoots that might require hidden camera blinds, extras, location fees, travel, etcetera can quickly add up to over 100k, fast,” Terrill says. “Depending on how far you’re willing to go, it can get tricky.”
Though buying an existing European production like “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” was likely a budget-friendly move for the CW, a show like “Masters of Illusion” has large-scale, complex illusions, and the production costs for “Wizard Wars” have likely grown quite a bit from its $15 YouTube pilot. Being on trend, rather than under budget, is likely a greater motivator for programmers snapping up magic shows. “The people who sign these shows may make $250,000 a year, but if they sign a couple of bombs, they’re out,” says Reynolds. “They’re all copying one another. One guy has an original idea, and the rest copy, because programmers want to keep their jobs. Everyone’s trying to get their own spin on an idea until they burn it out.”
He notes that pressure to produce a hit is far higher than it was twenty years ago, when smaller networks could try any number of concepts without fear of being yanked out of a cable package. “Cable companies are trying to drop these channels weekly. There are so many channels competing, they need hits. They need to be able to say, we have ‘Hardcore Pawn,’ so don’t drop us. You need hits to keep channels in the basic cable package.”
While it may be the latest trend, magic doesn’t seem at risk of oversaturation – at least for now. Magician Rob Zabrecky, who has two magic-themed shows in development, believes there’s still room for more. “The magic currently broadcast on television, the Internet and other forms of media has little on effect the projects I’m developing. Sure, they’re magic themed, but that’s where the similarities end. What I’m creating for these mediums is driven by my point of view and is unique to my perspective on magic and life,” he said. “What I think is really nice about the influx is that we’re seeing a variety of magic we didn’t see before, which is really good for magic as a whole. Until recently, I’d guess that most people thought magic was David Blaine or David Copperfield or Criss Angel. That’s kind of like saying rock and roll is comprised of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis.”
Magic has already survived its greatest 21st century threat – which isn’t television, but YouTube. Any trick that stumps a viewer on television can be instantly Googled, usually to reveal a multitude of video performances. “It could have killed magic, [that] you can figure out how it’s done. That’s not great,” Zabrecky said. “But it’s opened up the idea for people to be intrigued by the performer. With these shows, we’re seeing that magic isn’t so much about doing a trick. It’s about personality, point of view, artistry and craft, which I’m not sure people knew before.”
While the small screen trend may fade, there’s plenty of time for more magicians, and magic shows, to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Magic has stuck around this long for a reason, after all. “At ‘Brain Games’ we realized early on that, after neuroscientists, magicians are probably second in terms of their ability to understand and work with the human brain,” “Brain Games” EP Jerry Kolber said. “That’s a potent and rich space for us to play in, and it still has the power to amaze.”