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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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A decade of reality television programming has affected not only TV entertainment, but also TV news, says Lee Kamlet, dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "News programs have mirrored some of the same stylistic forms as reality TV, from story selection to the way stories are shot and edited to having reporters become part of the stories they cover," says Mr. Kamlet, a former producer at ABC's "Dateline." He points to the ABC News program "What Would You Do?," and before that NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series, which he says "were seemingly responses to audience interest in reality TV. It's part and parcel of the effort to take the audience inside a story, to make viewers feel that they are watching as events unfold."

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Cost savings have made reality programming one of the bright spots in an industry struggling to keep market share against so many alternative entertainment outlets.

"This is a thriving segment of the entertainment industry," says Adam Buckman, former TV columnist for the New York Post. He notes that the shows, which can cut costs by two-thirds over scripted programs, have turned the genre into catnip for big broadcast networks as well as niche channels such as IFC and The Sundance Channel. (Sundance has plans to double its commitment to reality programming this fall.)

This explosion of unscripted material has driven many veterans of scripted shows to the sort of mock despair on display from Phil Rosenthal, showrunner for "Everybody Loves Raymond." "The glut of reality shows that we're seeing could signal something larger than just a trend," he told reporters at the Beverly Hills press tour, adding, "and that's the end of civilization."

Mr. Buckman points out, however, that with the proliferation of cable outlets for high-gloss drama and comedy, such as AMC's "Mad Men," Showtime's "Breaking Bad" and "Dexter," and TNT's "The Closer," "there are probably more outlets for scripted shows than there have ever been."

The genre is deeply embedded in this generation, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, an English professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who calls the hyperfocus on "real" people a double-edged sword for the culture. On the one hand, she notes, an extreme focus on the quotidian life can lead to intense narcissism, but she also adds that it can be liberating if done well.

"We are always constructing our identities as we move through the world," she says. "Self-consciousness can be a powerful vehicle for change. If you don't like what you see of yourself today, you have the ability to change it tomorrow."


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