Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel on reality television at Cal State Fullerton moderated by former Paramount Network TV President (now Chair of CSUF Radio-TV-Film) Garry Hart. It was a revelatory experience for me, as I’m not used to being asked to speak to a group — especially a group of that size, some 90 students — who are already familiar with the basics of reality television. I’ve spoken to many college and university classes over the years, but this was some next-level stuff.
Here’s some additional context to tell you why I found it so surprising:
Shortly after Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market was released in 2011, I attended a UFVA (University Film and Video Association) conference with my publisher. When not participating in or attending general panels, I’d always find my way to the table in the vendors room to talk to various academics who were on the prowl for new reads and textbooks.
A woman approached the table and asked what the newest releases from my publisher were. When I asked what her program focused on, she replied, “Everything. Film and TV, soup to nuts.”
I pointed out a new book on producing for YouTube, another on web series, and my own book on reality television. Upon hearing the phrase reality television, the woman (the dean of a media school) actually placed her hands behind her back and proudly declared, “Oh, no. We don’t teach that.”
At the time she wouldn’t dream of teaching reality television (eww, gross, right?), it constituted about fifty percent of what was on the air. More, depending on whose data you believed and how far into deep cable you were willing to go. She was willing to close the door to half of the jobs in television so that her students could focus on the pure and sexy stuff –sitcoms, dramas, films and scripted new media.
What seemed even stranger to me was the fact that some schools represented at the conference had critical study/ethics courses built around reality television, but offered nothing about making the stuff. I’m all for any sort of critical study, but if you can’t then learn how to make a better product in other courses within the same program, why bother? It would be like paying for a standalone class in not liking 1960’s things-suspended-in-aspic cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, in which you learn nothing about making things suspended in aspic.
Flash forward four years to last Thursday, while an engaged group at CSUF asked real questions about the industry and were willing to accept the very real answers. They clearly knew plenty about the mundane ins-and-outs and wanted to know more. We discussed the economics of reality television, what drives the decisions networks and production companies make, the bottom line as far as what a person could earn mid-career, all the sort of questions I almost never seem to get from students.
It’s been a thrill to know that so many colleges and universities have added Reality TV to their curricula, and that some students are electing to pursue careers in an area of entertainment they once regarded as a temporary employer they’d settle for while they worked toward a “real” career in something else.
Reality is still evolving. Y2K-era shows like Survivor changed the landscape, but there’s much more to explore. Attracting the brightest young creative minds, thanks to schools that celebrate the best of it rather than looking down on all of it, is key to reality’s evolution.
Thanks again, CSUF. I had a blast.