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.

By , Staff writer

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    ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’
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While there is a respectable freshman class of scripted TV shows debuting this fall, the real drama is coming from reality TV – both new shows and old. The most anticipated, prime-time broadcast network arrival is "The X Factor," a new talent show from Simon Cowell, creator and former curmudgeon-in-residence judge of "American Idol."

The British talent producer has been quoted as saying he hopes to helm something bigger than his former blockbuster. Over on cable, one of the most successful unscripted programming franchises, Bravo's "Real Housewives," is shadowed by the mid-August suicide of Russell Armstrong, husband of one of the lead cast members of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."

As of press time, the network plans to bring the show back on its scheduled Sept. 5 return date. But the season opener, which featured wife Taylor Armstrong buying lingerie and discussing her troubled marriage, will be reedited along with the rest of the season, according to the network.

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This narrative plays out against a TV landscape thoroughly infused with reality TV. Some variation of unscripted programs fill nearly a third of the prime-time broadcast hours in this upcoming season, either returning hits such as "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Voice," or the latest iteration of the granddaddy of the genre, "Survivor: South Pacific."

Reality programming has virtually colonized entire swaths of the cable TV landscape, where new shows, such as "The Dead Files," "I Hate My Bath," "Unleashed By Garo," and "Emeril's Table," populate channels devoted nearly entirely to niche knockoffs of subcategories such as weight loss and cooking shows. Reality and unscripted shows have "taken the focus a bit, and rightly so," Robert Greenblatt, incoming NBC chairman and president of programming, told reporters during the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills last month. "Shows like 'Biggest Loser,' 'Celebrity Apprentice,' 'The Voice,' 'America's Got Talent,' and 'The Sing-Off' are all really connecting with audiences," he says. "There's a really important place for those shows on our schedule."

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.

"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.

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."

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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