Calling it reality TV is altogether unreal


On this, the eve of the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, I offer the following pronouncement: It's time to dump the term "reality TV." At this point, it's rather like referring to packaged fruit snacks as "produce." My suggested replacement would be "partially scripted TV," which I imagine would be preferable to "fabricated" for those who work that end of the business.

The issue has moved well beyond the simple mislabeling of a genre: It's impacting innumerable livelihoods by preventing those who create material for shows like last year's test case, "America's Next Top Model" (where some staffers unsuccessfully struck), from receiving union scale and benefits as writers. It's sure to remain a sticking point in negotiations between producers and the WGA, West, that resume next week.

Nothing against Kathy Griffin, but how exactly does her wacky Bravo series "My Life on the D-List" earn the Emmy for "outstanding reality series" -- as it did this past Saturday at the Emmy Creative Arts ceremony? You know a tipping point has been reached when a comedienne is earning awards for "reality."

But the WGA need not go digging onto TV Academy turf to make its case about reality shows regularly utilizing the written word. All it needs to do is check out the credits. Programs purporting to be "unscripted" see no evident conflict in listing several "story editors" or "story producers" among its crew. If we are to read these titles literally, those professionals would be responsible for "editing" or "producing" a story line, which to my mind sounds pretty much identical to what they'd be doing on a sitcom or drama series.

Indeed, the earnestness of the "reality" assertion deflates entirely when it comes to the idea of actually casting shows featuring non-actors.

Take the new Fox series "Kitchen Nightmares," centered by "Hell's Kitchen" chef Gordon Ramsay, that premieres next Wednesday night. It has Ramsay visiting a different struggling restaurant each week in the hope of turning it around. It boasts a casting roster of 18, including a casting head, two senior casting producers, one casting producer, two casting coordinators, four casting associates, two casting editors, five casting assistants and something called "a casting risk manager."

Why does a program populated primarily by the actual employees and customers of real restaurants need 18 people to cast it? If the casting department's job is strictly scouting out the eateries and judging charisma and on-camera appeal, are they not in fact conducting auditions?

Most reality producers will only cop to the fact that their shows occasionally "augment" the authenticity of their concept but never "manufacture." It's a fine line, that one. Only when compelled do they ever allow us to peer behind that curtain, such as when CBS' "Kid Nation" (premiering Wednesday) last month sparked a firestorm for its creation of a quasi-"Lord of the Flies" scenario that allegedly exploited and endangered its juvenile participants.

Suddenly, a series hyped as "40 Kids. One Town. No Adults." had become one where there were hundreds of grown-ups supervising things constantly, as CBS defended. By the time the network was done spinning, we half expected the show's new slogan to be, "350 Adults. One Soundstage. A Kid or Two."

Such is the fiction buried beneath the bogus "reality" facade. But as the proprietors of oxygen bars might tell you, the public can be made to buy into just about anything.
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