Back to Reality at TCA

Unscripted fare dominates cable slate; association claims BET ethics breach
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From rappers rehabilitating themselves to rehabbed models with a bad rap, the cable portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour last week in Pasadena, Calif., reinforced that unscripted series will continue to be a mainstay of the cable industry.

Roughly two-thirds of the programs presented to TV reporters were unscripted, including the usual dose of shows featuring the lives of low-wattage celebrities.

Another story coming out of the cable segment centered on the BET network, which was accused of planting a question with a press person.

Amid the unscripted fare that was presented, much of it was of a more thoughtful nature. One of the documentaries creating buzz was a National Geographic Explorer special, World’s Most Dangerous Gang, for which former The View host Lisa Ling investigated a brutal Salvadoran street gang.

The threats of Mother Nature also took center stage, including Discovery Channel’s Global Warming: Are We Melting the Planet, hosted by Tom Brokaw. The Weather Channel has the series It Could Happen Tomorrow, which showcases predictions of natural disasters. The pilot, completed last April, was a “what if” scenario for a hurricane leveling New Orleans. It was replaced by an episode about a hurricane hitting New York.

But there were plenty of shows based on has-beens, including Oxygen’s Janice Dickinson Project, about the former supermodel, and BET’s Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown, which looks at Kim’s last two weeks before going to prison.

And while the term “reality” is already debatable regarding some unscripted shows, a new VH1 offering further blurs the line. NoTORIous is a scripted show in which Tori Spelling plays herself in a fictionalized version of her life.

A scandal surfaced when members of the TCA and National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) learned that BET execs had reportedly planted a question on a slip of paper with journalist Mary McNamara at BET’s session.

Doing so during a presentation in which BET execs questioned panel members themselves and left only about 10 minutes for a Q&A didn’t sit well with writers. “It seems to show a pretty serious lack of confidence in your programming if you have to plant questions,” says Pittsburgh Post Gazette writer and TCA President Rob Owen, to whom McNamara showed the slip. “It’s highly unethical and certainly not anything I’ve seen in my eight years [as a TV critic].”

An NCTA spokesman said the organization will pursue the issue, while BET denies a question was planted with the writer. McNamara did not return calls.