Burnett & The Reality Gang Review Their Future

By Kathy Tracy

After being the driving force in the U.S. primetime TV schedule for the last several years, the reality genre is being forced to creatively reinvent itself in a post-Lost and Grey's Anatomy landscape. With scripted dramas making such a resounding comeback, reality is looking to fill other niches. Look for fewer shows relying on cut-throat tactics or gross-out factors: feel-good programming and adventure look to be the reality mantra in the coming year, with such shows as The Biggest Loser, Dancing with the Stars, Three Wishes and Treasure Hunter leading the next generation of reality shows.

The undisputed king of the genre, Mark Burnett, said that reality TV's recent domination has less to do with trends and more to do with execution and reliability. "Reality is drama, it doesn't matter whether someone made it up on a script or it's real life, as long as the story is clear and concise and compelling," he said.

Burnett continued, "In comparing them to scripted shows, it's the unpredictable nature of these type of shows that's important to the audience. In CSI, you know very well that [lead character] Bill Petersen won't be dying this week and that [the team of investigators] will solve the case. [This predictability in scripted shows] made room for unpredictable shows like ours," he said. "I always put these shows along the lines of a letter you get every week from someone you care about. It's the same envelope, the same stationery, the same stamp, but inside you know that the letter will be very, very different."

He continued, "Both The Apprentice and Survivor deal with the emotional pull that all humans feel from being excluded from something; when you're fired, or in the case of Survivor, when the torch goes out, it's like being killed. These are the emotional hooks [to which] the audience relates."

Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, said it's clear there's an increasingly obvious fatigue factor settling in among viewers when it comes to harder-edged reality programming. "The trend [toward softer reality shows] started last year and there's going to be a continuation of that. We felt Extreme Makeover: Home Edition caught steam because people really were a little turned off by the mean-spirited, cynical kind of reality."

But, as is typical, television is a victim of its own success, prompting McPherson to note, "Now, unfortunately, you're seeing rip-offs of the stuff that was working. And you're even seeing it in marketing campaigns. Look how the marketing campaign of American Idol changed last year. Before it was making fun of everybody, and then, after Extreme Makeover: Home Edition worked, it was all about how this is the American dream. Unfortunately, you've got to be careful at what point that becomes overkill, because you have all the clones. [ABC's] Dancing with the Stars was another way of doing a wish-fulfillment kind of show - a fun, vibrant show that was just a joy to watch. So we're looking for opportunities like that to grow our brand into the direction of wish-fulfillment."

Reality has become an especially important piece of summer programming for broadcasters desperately trying to stem the flow of viewers to cable. CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler recently noted that in general, audiences still welcomed tried-and-true reality because, "It's nice to have an alternative. It's nice to have original programming during the summer. I think we have to look to the audience to tell us when they've had enough."

Craig Plestis, senior vice president of Alternative Programming at NBC Universal agreed that the reality genre has not overstayed its welcome. "I believe that unscripted television is an evolving entity. Over the next few years, I think you'll see the evolution of a hybrid of scripted and unscripted programs," he said.

Not everyone, though, believes the studios care about the emotional attachments of the audiences, as much as they do that financial benefits reality offers. In fact, the studios have come under attack of late because reality shows don't employ union writers. In June 2005, Writers Guild of America (WGA) West president Daniel Petrie Jr. publicly called the genre "a 21st century telecommunications industry sweatshop." Petrie's goal is to organize the reality TV writers, producers and editors who are working without a union contract. So far, around one thousand talents have signed authorization cards for WGA representation but none of the companies they work for have agreed to negotiate despite consistent pressure from the WGA.

In a statement, Petrie stressed, "The people working in reality TV deserve the protections of health and pension benefits, minimum salary, fair working conditions and residuals - just like everyone else in the industry. If the industry refuses, we are prepared to take the actions necessary to achieve our goals and to assist the reality TV workforce as they seek enforcement of state and federal overtime laws."

Fueling the WGA's ire is the misconception that reality series are not "scripted" per se. Dave Rupel, whose credits include MTV cult reality classic The Real World noted, "We don't write lines for people to say, but we use our storytelling skills. We create an interesting situation, put the right ensemble together and select the correct sound bites.

"We know there will be resistance, because the industry sees reality as the moneymaker-it costs less than scripted. In the scripted world, overtime and double time makes it financially not a good situation to work six days a week or 20 hours a day. On reality shows, you wrap at 2 a.m. and are back at the office at 8 a.m., and there is no penalty for that," Rupel said.

Delicately sidestepping the issue, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler said, "It's obviously a very complex issue. We want fair labor standards for everybody. Part of the problem is you've got shows that are produced in so many different ways. You've got controlled environments. You've got shows on the run. It's kind of hard to apply one standard to everything. We encourage the WGA to look at this on a case-by-case scenario much in the way the Director Guild of America is [looking at it]."

Union disputes aside, nobody believes reality will fade away. And indeed, it appears to becoming more, not less, entrenched in the overall direction television will take. A new U.S. cable network, known as the Current Network, is a kind of hybrid entertainment-news-reality channel that encourages its targeted audience to become participants. "We want television to be an active process, not the passive entertainment that televisioaan is today," explained Current producer Gotham Chopra.

Former U.S. vice president and and chairman of Current, Al Gore added, "This generation wants to be in control of its media; they want personalized media. So we aspire to make television a two-way conversation, not just interactive in the sense that the viewer can click yes or no or buy or don't buy; we are inviting this new generation - empowered by digital tools of small and good cameras and laptop editing systems - to actually make television. And then with the help of an online collaborative, we will use that as the basis for a great deal of our programming."

But Gore shies away from the reality moniker. "In our experience, it seems as if a lot of reality TV quickly becomes fantasy TV with people who are assigned to play certain roles. We think of ourselves as authenticity TV, with the difference being that the people who are watching have the opportunity to actually help make the programming; of being in an intelligent ongoing dialogue with our audience and learning from them as we invite them to participate."