October 9, 2003
Reality of Their Own
Reality TV is nothing new. Since the dawn of television, there have always been unscripted formats and game shows of one kind or another. However, the current incarnation of reality programming -- shows such as "Survivor," "The Bachelor," and "Fear Factor" -- may be the most durable and successful shows in the history of reality programming. What's more, reality TV is the most innovative area of current programming, far more creative than sitcoms, hour-long dramas, sports, news or movies and miniseries. In fact, it may be helpful to think of current reality shows as game shows or "event programming" much like the highly touted TV movies of the 1970s and '80s.
I learned all this and more when I attended a recent panel at The Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills called, "Keeping it Real: The Past, Present and Future of Reality Television."
Hosted by the museum's vice president and director Barbara Dixon, the panelists included the producers and executives most responsible for the current craze, including Mike Darnell, Fox's reality guru; Mike Fleiss, the executive producer of the highly addictive "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette"; Ghen Maynard, the CBS executive behind "Survivor"; Jonathan Murray of Bunim-Murray's "The Real World" and "Road Rules"; Arnold Shapiro, who produces "Big Brother"; Scott Stone, of Stone Stanley Productions, who produced "Celebrity Mole" and "Fame"; and Andrea Wong, ABC's reality exec.
Dixon led the panel in a discussion of their programs' antecedents and influences: the 1973 PBS documentary, "An American Family"; raw reality shows like "COPS" and "Rescue 911," which Shapiro produced; and MTV's "The Real World." I am happy to tell you that neither Dickens nor Shakespeare was cited, but these are intelligent people who know exactly what they are doing.
What I learned was this: When all is said and done, a reality show is about inexpensive, compelling TV programming. Like scripted shows, reality programs are driven by story and character, and sold on an explosive idea that you can promote in 30 seconds. Casting is critical -- it's part of how the producers influence story. The audiences are, for the most part, women ages 18-34. Although there is no script, there is editing and music and the host to help shape a final product.
You may think that anything goes, but the producers are keenly conscious of the shifting lines they will not cross. As one panelist put it bluntly, "No one wants to have the first show that someone dies on." But one thing is clear: the producers and executives are following their gut instincts to guess what it is America wants.
Darnell, the executive who was reality TV before reality TV was cool (remember "When Animals Attack"?) described the current shows as "social psychology experiments." Darnell is right, perhaps more than he knows.
One hundred years ago, as Neal Gabler so ably chronicled in "An Empire of Their Own," a group of mostly Jewish immigrants and their children settled in California and founded a movie industry that defined the American dream from their own inner strivings, dreams and projections.
Today, television reaches far more Americans than movies. More hours of television programming are devoted to reality than to news. I would argue that it is no coincidence that these are the producers and executives defining our reality.
Looking out at the panel -- what you did not see was prototypical all-Americans, Mayflower descendants or the prom king and queen. They are, as a group, the outsiders.
Fleiss says he turned to reality TV because he was a failed sitcom writer. Wang started in strategic planning; Maynard in drama. Darnell has endured a lifetime of mocking on his road to success.
For the first generation of movie moguls it was enough to present America as they imagined it. But for these executives and producers, born in America, living in California, the children and grandchildren of immigrants (literally or figuratively), they have looked inward to create programming based on their own neurotic reactions to the American dream.
What are "Survivor," "Fear Factor," "Big Brother," "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol" if not the inner drama of the outsider wanting to conquer the American mainstream? Each show is like the deepest anxiety of any teenager: Will I be tough enough? Am I a wimp? Is everyone watching me? Do people like me for me? And increasingly, there is another question in America: Can I be famous?
Consider these programs: 25 women vie for the attention of one bachelor; 25 men vie for the affections of one dream woman. Are these our dreams, or the revenge fantasy of the outcast? And just who considers their children such princes or princesses? How about this show: Parents choose the right partner for their child, resorting to a lie-detector test at one point. Whose parents interfere too much in their child's selection of a mate? Just ask Nia Vardalos, who made a fortune off her "Big Fat Greek Wedding." She knows.
If you asked these producers and executives about their inspiration, they would say one thing: they create shows that first, they believe they can sell, and second, shows whose concepts grab them. It is a subjective call -- and that's the point -- their own sensibilities are informing America's reality. One-hundred years after the moguls ruled Hollywood, a new generation has plumbed its own dreams and neuroses to create a reality of its own.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.