Reality TV as Punching Bag: Enough Already


Tonight, I paid $150 to attend an awards dinner that opened with an impassioned speech about how reality tv was basically a bunch of garbage that is displacing quality programming. Cheers! Applause! It’s the very antithesis of what America is all about! Cheers! Applause!

Well, guess what? A pretty big portion of it is exactly what America is all about. At least what the FCC says American broadcasting is required to be all about.

From the FCC’s own manual: “In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity.’ This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community of license.”

NBC’s The Biggest Loser has helped countless people lose weight and get fit. Til Debt Do Us Part offers practical advice and lessons on living within a budget. Reality TV does more than pit Meatloaf against Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice or teach us about the perils of spray tanning in Jersey, it more than infrequently teaches us how to remodel our homes, mend our relationships, try new things, broaden our world view and do incredibly nice things for our fellow man. There are entire channels full of reality TV dedicated to everything from cooking to travel to wildlife and more — two nights ago, I watched a show on Animal Planet that profiled different kinds of cats, clarifying which breeds were ideal for different types of households. These shows are, to my mind, far more in line with the public interest than most traditionally scripted dramas and sitcoms at present, which I enjoy as entertaining, escapist fare save for the occasional heartstring-tugging topical episode.

In the absence of the kind of quality made-for-tv-movies and specials that ruled the airwaves in the 80’s and early 90’s (which I genuinely miss), reality tv has picked up the ball with shows that address various personal and societal issues. I didn’t know anything about the “ice” epidemic until Dog The Bounty Hunter started talking about it, and Intervention brought the problem of inhalants to national attention in a memorable episode.

Sure, you can take cheap shots at certain docusoaps and reality-competition shows, but there’s plenty of useful, uplifting, educational stuff out there, too. Get back to me when you hear about a network sitcom giving as much back as American Idol or when someone uses something they learned on NCIS to help fix up their house. I’m not saying there’s not a lot of junk out there in reality TV, I’m just saying that the crap to quality ratio isn’t any worse than in any other genre; when it comes down to serving the public interest, I think reality is actually leading in the broader picture.

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3 thoughts on “Reality TV as Punching Bag: Enough Already

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  1. Folks can trash RealityTV all they want. But, by doing so they show their ignorance about television programming. The term may not have been coined till the mid 90s, but the genre has existed since the earliest days of the tube. As a kid growing up in the early ’60s I remember watching People Are Talking and Candid Camera. As a young filmmaker enthralled with cinema verite I was glued to the tube watching An American Family on PBS. There were the annual verite docs by Frederick Wiseman on PBS as well. Remember Real People? How about the SuperStar competition shows in the ’70s? As a television editor deeply involved in documentary film, I worked on a mini series in the mid ’80s that would definitely be called Reality TV today. In the early ’90s at the invitation of an old film school friend who was lead editor the first season, I came on to the second season of an experimental show on MTV called The Real World. What we did there did not so much change the face of television as it did remind audiences and networks that this kind of programming has always been around. Reality TV is keeping the networks in business these days. It’s certainly the main stay of basic cable, and with major success on every broadcast network has proven that its here to stay. There are good reality shows and bad ones. Just as there are good sitcoms and bad ones (with all of the concern about Charlie Sheen in the press, has anyone ever noticed that the show that made him rich actually sucks?). There are good dramas and bad ones, good talk shows and bad ones. The hypocrisy of “Television Artists” putting down all Reality TV smacks of false elitism. If I had been at that awards show you were at Troy, I would have stood up and walked out if they put down this entire genre. I am a documentary filmmaker. I have worked on films that have won Oscars, edited TV spots that have won Clios, and edited documentaries that have won Peabody awards. And I make a good portion of my living working in Reality TV without apology. Folks that put it all down as one don’t understand the level of story telling that goes into these programs. Simply put, they can kiss my ass.

  2. Bob, thanks for your reply.

    It takes a lot to make me angry enough to leave a room. I almost did it at the first WGAw Awards that I attended, the year Mel Brooks was celebrated for his lifetime of great work.

    At that dinner, host Bill Maher opened with a joke about not thinking of this as “the year we lost our houses to reality television” and David E. Kelley later said he’d “like to think that someone in this town would rather take a meeting with Sorkin than the producers of WHO WANTS TO MARRY A TERRORIST.” I remember a good dozen more of those zingers, as I didn’t have the self-esteem of a “real” writer at the time, and each snipe turned my ears redder with upset.

    Huge laughs and big applause rolled all night at the expense of reality television, but there I sat. I’m glad I didn’t walk out, as I’d have missed my first of many opportunities to hear Mel Brooks speak. Somehow that made it all worth it.

  3. Why doesn’t the producers and directors of reality TV shows have their own televised awards ceremony? I think it would be a ratings hit. You should have no problem getting all the reality stars as presenters. You could educate the public what goes into making these shows.

    It wasn’t too long ago that women who appeared on stage or in films were viewed on the same level as prostitutes. The Oscars and Tonies were partly done to counter such public opinion. Maybe the reality TV industry should follow suit.

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