The other day in the office I asked Fritz, "Hey...What do you think the 1980's would have thought about modern reality television shows?"
His answer was quick, humorous, and to the point, "Isn't that what The Running Man is all about?"
This immediately brought to mind the brilliant 1990 video game Smash TV. A game that is now available for Gen-X nostalgistas on the Play Station 2 as part of a compilation game disk.
I think to a certain extent Fritz hit the nail on the head, especially when it comes to shows like Fear Factor and Survivor, but there are also the mean versions of Cable Classics. What do I mean by this? Well, cable is semi-famous for its off-kilter shows like Trading Spaces and This Old House or even semi-biography series about "real life" situations. These shows have become the The Swan,Big Brother and The Apprentice type television shows when a competative element is added to the existing formula. Shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition are just a natural extension of the older cable shows. Think Bob Vila with a sledgehammer, actually doing the work and not leaving it all up to his various sidekicks.
When it comes to reality TV, I have fairly strong opinions about what I enjoy or don't enjoy. I don't tend to enjoy the shows that substitute "meanness" for "dramatic conflict." I prefer shows like The Great Race over Survivor. Nobody gets voted off the Race. That doesn't mean there aren't "villains" or "b*%ches" on Race, but the conflict is the Race itself and not who is getting voted off this week. Maybe that is why it keeps winning Emmys. Even if its ratings are lower than Survivor. I also like the better versions of the "real life" biopics. So I like Blow Out the short run show about Jonathan Antin's new hair salon, or the first The Restaurant before they brought in a "villain" for the second season. Starting up and running a business are difficult enough to create natural conflict. You don't need to insert artificial conflicts into the environment.
So far MOST reality TV is drama based, hence all my comments regarding conflict. We'll ignore America's Funniest Home Videos and the other reality "comedy" shows. Being dramas these shows need some sort of conflict to drive the narrative and keep audience interest. That's why there are the "alliances, politics, and b*%ches/b@$tards" in many of these shows. Without these tropes these shows would be like watching marmots eat, sleep, and breed (which explains why Big Brother is so dull). What strikes me as funny though is that in "reality" TV the conflicts seem more artificial than in "scripted" TV.
I watch a ton of scripted television. From Boston Legal to Scrubs to the new LAX my evenings are filled with drama and comedy, and sometimes the rare adventure tale. Add to these shows the two to three movies I see in theaters each week and you have quite a full schedule, but I can read and watch a 22 or 44 minute show. I love scripted television, and the central requirement of scripted shows is, obviously, writers. This is why I am keeping a close eye on the WGA and their reactions to reality TV.
Some comentators worry that if the WGA strikes that reality TV will be able to fill the time and completely satisfy the pallete of the audience. But I think is a non-issue. Even if true, for the sake of argument, one of the things the WGA is fighting for are reality TV writer's rights as well. Reality TV writer? Yes, reality TV writers. They are an underpaid, and underappreciated group of individuals who do more than just come up with "concepts." They also help structure events and competitions to maximize dramatic stress on the shows. Besides, once reality TV dominates (which I am sure it will for a time) the salaries will eventually have to rise. Right now the networks are getting a kind of old school studio deal (cheap and controllable labor), but that won't last. Sure, everyone wants to be a star and get their 15 minutes of fame, but the people who make that fame are going to want their share of the proceeds. The more the shows make, and they make a lot, the more leverage the employees will have in negotiations. Especially since I don't watch shows for producers to rake in all the money. Not that there is anything wrong with producers making a ton of money, I do in fact actually watch some TV based solely on the producer. It is just that the higher the descrepency the more leverage the unions will have to create a RTVGA (Reality Television Guild of America) or pull the employees into existing union structures. Once this happens and reality costs go up to the levels of scripted TV we will see more balance.
What concerns me is not the long-term picture, which I am optimistic about, rather the short-term. There are a lot of talented, and not so young, writers out there and a lot of developing but rough young writers out there. I worry about how long the situation will last and then how good the new writers will be. Few writers are born comedy/dramatic geniuses. After all, if I remember correctly, one of Seinfeld's most embarrassing moments is that he was fired from Alf.