There has been so much written about the notion that we’re in a “new golden age” of television, and without much elaboration you know the shows they’re talking about – scripted dramas, TV’s version of the films that defined the 1970s, with distinctive characters and bold, compelling, serialized storytelling.
But there’s a broadly defined genre of programming that shouldn’t be left out of this conversation, and that’s unscripted, or reality, or whatever you want to call an expanding array of shows that don’t feature hired actors reading lines off a page written by someone else.
The term “reality” is often misused as a “one-size-fits-all” label that fails to adequately characterize the wide range of different and distinctive shows identified with the genre. Deadliest Catch and Project Runway are as far apart as the Bering Sea and Seventh Avenue, yet we identify both as “reality TV.” Today, it seems we no longer use the word to describe the genre, as much as we do to indict it, even though a huge percentage of TV shows and viewership fall into this category. To attribute the success and appeal of reality TV to simple economics or to a “dumbing down” of the audience fails to recognize the potential of the format to connect and engage viewers in a powerful, impactful way.
What drove 24 million people to Fox News Channel earlier this month was not the opportunity to watch yet another political debate, it was the opportunity to watch a colorful character and prime time personality who was driving the story. Instead of sitting behind a table in a boardroom, Donald Trump was standing behind a podium but the distinction effectively ends there.
Let’s not forget that just few months ago more than 17 million people tuned in on a Friday night to watch the personal account of an individual whose most notable public achievement, other than appearing in a long-running reality show, had happened four decades earlier in an Olympic stadium. And now Caitlyn Jenner’s story has now been woven through two different reality series, a national sports award show, social media and plenty of watercooler conversations.
As someone who runs a network driven by this kind of programming, I’ve learned the best of scripted and unscripted are defined by the same thing – authentic and engaging stories driven by characters we can relate to, empathize with, root for or against. Reality TV has given us millions of small moments and its fair share of big and communal ones, from Pedro Zamora on The Real World becoming the first person many in his generation “knew” to be living with HIV/AIDS to a nation falling in love with an unknown singer named Kelly Clarkson on American Idol. The genre has also introduced words and phrases into our popular consciousness. Everyone knows what it means when you call someone a Bridezilla, or talk about a meal’s “flavor profile,” or hurl some salt in a pot with a “BAM!”
Reality should not be excluded from this golden age of television, because it contributes plenty of gold to the equation, and there’s art and magic to producing these shows. The best of this kind of programming makes you feel like you can’t believe you have an eye into these worlds, populated by real people, doing extraordinary things that still tie back to your own experience, the human experience. The production of reality programming can collapse a timeline, or focus attention on specific moments, but it can’t change who these people are. If they didn’t say it, the words wouldn’t be on the screen.
Today’s version of reality TV is essentially the evolution of the documentary, going all the way back to An American Family in the early 70s and The Osbournes on MTV three decades later. Take a look at the final episode of HBO’s remarkable, Emmy-nominated The Jinx, when Andrew Jarecki and his staff are rehearsing how to put a damning piece of evidence in front of Robert Durst. They are producing a moment of reality television, right there on the screen, and the results speak for themselves.
The fastest-growing version of reality isn’t even professionally produced, it is created by emerging talent on platforms like YouTube, Vine, Periscope and others who have stories to tell and the technology necessary to do so. Fueling the connections of newly minted reality stars is the rise of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others, which allow participants to get “real” with their fans like never before. At their best, these are direct person-to-person interactions, not actors talking to fans about characters they play, and this dialogue underscores the potency of the genre.
There is good scripted and bad scripted, and good reality and bad reality, and success in either format depends on common themes and attributes that do one thing really well – they resonate with viewers. No one says, “I’m going home tonight to watch some scripted television.” They say they are going home to watch their favorite shows, and – for millions of people – those shows fall into an enormous bucket called reality TV.
Marc Juris is the President of WE tv