TV Feeds Hunger for Real Stories
Sunday night's Emmys may have this town in a buzz, but they overlook the stars of TV's fastest growing niche: real people in real situations.Skip to next paragraph
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From "Dateline NBC - Wednesday" to "Judge Mills Lane," "Emergency Vets," and "L.A. Lifeguards," there are more real-life broadcast and cable shows than ever. Six of the current top 10 shows are nonfiction, and network newsmagazines alone have grown to 11 hours weekly this fall.
The economics of nonfiction programming versus fiction offer a quick explanation for this explosion of everybody's 15 minutes of fame. Reality programming is cheap: Compare a record $13 million per episode cost for "ER" with $500,000 for an hour of "Dateline."
But while money is important, the shows wouldn't thrive as they do without the audience appetite. Industry observers say that what the shows reflect about our culture and where it is headed may be as good a story as the shows themselves.
"This is a generation of news junkies," suggests Garth Jowett, a University of Houston communications professor. The urge goes beyond a need for the new, Mr. Jowett explains. It's part of a demystification of information, a democratization of resources driven in part by easy access to technology like videocams and the Internet.
"People now are used to triangulating information from a variety of sources, not just one," he explains.
Beyond that, Jowett says with a laugh, some of this has been fueled by people's instinctive need, which began in TV's earliest days, to balance the "guilty pleasure" of a "Melrose Place" with something worthwhile.
"The world's changed," agrees the chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes. And so has news. "Journalism is no longer just in charge of the medicine cabinet, forcing people to watch things they should do that will be good for them." The younger generation, in particular, he maintains, is interested in stories, "whether it's the Internet or the Spice Girls or the trip to China or Bosnia."
Writer Diane English offers that people enjoy the reassurance of knowing what they're watching is unique because it's true. "The reason people are watching [newsmagazine shows] is because it's new information," says Ms. English, creator of "Murphy Brown." "It's not something they've seen already," she continues, explaining that as the information age evolves, a premium is being placed on being up to date. While people are hungry for new information, "they want to be entertained as well," she says. English emphasizes that with so many options, people won't stick with a show that bores them.
Criticisms have been raised that the atmosphere of competition for ratings among news-based programs can taint their journalistic value. Newsmagazine programs periodically have to retract misinformation or even fight court battles - and the public perception that they cross ethical and legal lines to get sensational stories.
David Westin, president of ABC News, expresses the concern that context and perspective can be lost when "raw information streams out from a vast number of sources," or when too much entertainment is mixed in to make it sell.
The programs do reach for ratings, Mr. Ailes says, but he points out that it's the celebrity culture we live in that "causes all of these magazines to sometime go for a little lighter fare, a little popular thing.... People are interested in that subject."
ABIT of historical perspective helps on this issue, muses Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "Thirty years ago, critics were worried about a nation obsessed with 'Hogan's Heroes' and 'Green Acres,' " he says. If these same observers were around at this moment, he adds, "they'd think it was a dream come true. Now, we have people watching news and information all the time."