Can TV Save Itself From Reality? Please?


If ever television needed an extreme makeover, it's now. Sorry, FCC, but the problem is more onerous than the likes of Janet Jackson, Bono, or even Howard Stern. It's not a peekaboo boob here, not so-called smut nor the f-word. It's the dreaded r-word.



From Survivor
to its many progeny swimming like tadpoles in the media stream, "reality" is the Bethlehem star for this millennium's TV programmers. As this summer and the coming fall season reaffirm, their eyes light up like slot machines when sighting a show concept with "reality" potential, which to them can cover anything from sports to spot welding.

Rouging these shows up to make them appear different doesn't alter the fact that they're essentially breaking old ground, again and again.

And that "reality" label? Get real.

The industry sees profit in it, however speciously it's applied. In 2002's The Hamptons, for example, ABC gave us TV's "first reality miniseries," which in earlier years would have been called a documentary. And TBS labeled its Worst-Case Scenario
TV's first "reality" magazine series, as if 60 Minutes
never existed.

This is not another lament hemorrhaging praise for the "golden age" of TV, which only amnesiacs stubbornly insist was all that golden. In limited ways, in fact, TV's present entertainment profile is handsomer than ever, thanks largely to original programming by HBO and improving Showtime.

Nor are TV copycats a new phenomenon. Like feature films and theater, the small screen has regenerated itself for generations, its DNA dictating that hot shows beget sequels or be copied in quadruplicate with ratings in mind.

Yet we're in a period now that is depressingly lean, and ugly, for those who treasure originality in entertainment.

TV has not been as derivative en masse since the 1950s and early 1960s when first quiz shows and then Westerns thundered across prime time like buffalo herds. In 2004, creativity is again limited to the occasional tumbleweed.

creator Mark Burnett is widely seen as the godfather of "reality." Not so. The genre was seeded in the 1973 PBS series An American Family, which kept a close-up lens on the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., for weeks, and, arguably, even earlier in the fly-on-the-wall films of Fred Wiseman and other documentarians whose cinéma vérité cameras discovered fascination in life's routine. Though not always successful, their goal was art. Now come the low-enders.

Since the break-out success of Survivor
in 2000, shows labeled "reality" have surfaced like measles spots. Think glut, with the wheels on this bandwagon now buckling. Nearly everyone is hopping on, from O.J. Simpson, who told an interviewer he's ready to join the game, to TV producer David E. Kelley, who interrupted his criticism of the genre long enough to sign a "reality" show deal with NBC.

I began tallying the "reality" shows airing across TV just this summer and stopped when I hit 20 because my eyes had glazed over. They range from golden oldies like Big Brother 5
on CBS and Joe Schmo 2
on Spike TV to at least a dozen newcomers.

You get hairdresser "reality" in Bravo's Blow Out,
high-stakes "reality" in The Discovery Channel's American Casino
and Fox's The Casino
. You get tightly wound brides "reality" in WE's Bridezillas,
Aussie hubba-hubba "reality" in a dozen babes competing for a hunk on TBS's Outback Jack. You get election "reality" in Showtime's American Candidate,
mobster's daughter "reality" in A&E's Growing Up Gotti
. And so on and so on…

All of them so real you can hardly stand it.

My most recent dose of this bracing realism came in tuning in The Ultimate Love Test
on ABC and witnessing beautiful "reality" faces pour their hearts out (poor babies) about relationships and romance with a $100,000 payday in their crosshairs. They were so honest, so candid, so spontaneous. With cameras on their noses, TV cable at their feet, and production crews at their sides. To say nothing of "reality" tweaking, courtesy of the editing room.

Real, my eye. Moreover, calling these shows "unscripted," as many do, is also misleading, implying a level of naturalness not present.

Much of advertising is underpinned by wordspin, from real estate agents promoting rickety houses as "needing tender loving care" to used cars sold as "pre-owned." TV has its own slippery tongue, regularly deploying euphemisms in selling products and itself, as in calling reruns "encore" episodes, implying they're back by public demand. The next step would be to call them "pre-seen."

It's "reality," however, that earns quotation marks as TV's overused, misused word of the century. The longer it's applied to shows that are largely faux, the more viewers will become desensitized and accept them as genuine.