Reality series that educate and entertain


In 1976, Frank Sinatra requested special security protection for a gig at a Chicago police event. When local columnist Mike Royko mocked his demands, he received an angry and bizarre response from the crooner. As retaliation, Royko decided to sell the letter for $400 to a woman named Vie Carlson. How much is that letter worth today?

The answer says a lot about the educational value of the current crop of Emmy-worthy reality TV shows.
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Carlson took the letter to the producers of PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" to be appraised. There, the 84-year-old grandmother learned her piece of history was now worth a surprising $15,000.

"The Frank Sinatra letter was such a spicy story," recalls executive producer Marsha Bemko of one of her favorite episodes. "And Vie's reaction was the best."

Reality TV certainly wasn't invented to make viewers smarter. But if there's a thread connecting many of the series that receive Emmy attention, it's that they include overtly educational elements in their story lines.

"We have collectors who watch to learn more," Bemko says. "And we have everyday people who want to be sure of two things: First, if we go to a yard sale, we want to be sure we recognize the difference between good and great. And two, we want to be sure that we don't put a $50,000 item out at our yard sale and sell it for $10."

The educational backdrop is also key to Discovery's science-based "MythBusters."

A luxury car commercial claimed its product was "faster than gravity." To test the theory, "MythBusters" producers dropped the car from a helicopter to see if it was faster than the same car on the ground. The two ended up traveling 4,000 feet at about the same speed. The result: an expensive episode, but one that informed viewers that a luxury vehicle could in fact be as fast as gravity.

"The educational value of the show is sometimes quite subtle," says "MythBusters" exec producer Dan Tapster, who sprinkles factoids between explosions and stunts like swimming through a vat of syrup. "To a certain extent, we may even trick people into watching the science, but as long as we get viewers, we're doing our job."

Another Emmy-nominated Discovery show, "Dirty Jobs," was originally a three-part documentary special. Executive producer Craig Piligian credits host Mike Rowe for the show's educational content.

"Viewers get a very clear and unique approach to the job," Piligian says. "They are learning through Mike what it takes to shear a sheep, impregnate a horse, clean disaster relief on sewage problems, sift through the dump. You're learning while you're enjoying and you don't really realize that you're actually learning."

In a more personal way, series such as A&E's "Intervention" and Dr. Drew Pinsky's "Celebrity Rehab" are able to educate viewers about serious issues of addiction and disease.

"The show is incredibly instructive," "Intervention" creator/executive producer Sam Mettler says.

"Addiction was something that was very closeted," adds exec producer Rob Sharenow. "People were afraid to talk about it. Millions of people suffer from addiction in one way or another and this show sheds a light on it."
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