The reality of fall TV
An upstart genre shows its influence as reality TV dominates the fall lineup and finds its techniques adopted across the TV landscape.
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But the impact of this relative newcomer – a genre that didn't even have an Emmy award category until 2001 – can be seen in ways beyond just the number of new shows it has spawned.Skip to next paragraph
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"The genre has been around long enough to become a universal donor," says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "It has demonstrated the ability to mate with virtually every category of programming, from the sitcom to the drama and the game show."
Beyond that, the stylistic "grammar" of the genre – everything from the low-quality ambient sound to the rapid-fire camera action, jerking between close-ups on whoever is speaking, to the intimate "confessional" asides spoken directly to the camera – have crept across the viewing landscape. They now show up in scripted programs such as "Modern Family" and "Parks and Recreation."
These scripted shows "prefer to hire cameramen with reality-television experience to achieve the roving, hand-held camerawork that characterizes each show's style," says Tricia Jenkins, assistant professor of film, TV, and digital media at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "The use of confessionals often appears on these shows as well, as do characters who acknowledge the presence of the camera crew through glances, something prereality-show dramas and comedies did not do," she adds.
The adaptation now flows in both directions between reality shows and scripted drama, notes editor Svein Mikkelsen, who has been editing reality programs for the past seven years. One of his favorites, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant," combines scripted re-creations with confessional-style interviews and scenes set in the present – "another hallmark of the genre," he points out.
Despite the low-brow entertainment of most reality TV, where contestants eat slimy worms and there are such effects as real-life marriage breakups, the genre still has a place in the evolution of storytelling, says Mr. Thompson. While other examples preceded "Survivor," in 2000, its blockbuster success signaled the arrival of a new aesthetic tool, he points out. Just as jazz expanded the modern musical idiom, "this improvisation on a premise, using amateur performers, is a genuine expansion of the modes available to story-tellers," he notes, adding that the past decade has seen the genre come of age.
If film is a director's medium and television is a writer's, then reality shows are an editor's medium, Thompson says, where the story arc is nursed out of the hours of footage rather than from a prepared script.