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TVs Reality Shows Reveal a Sordid Reality

Television never met a trend it didn't try to kill, so the minute that Who Wants to Be A Millionaire became a hit, others would follow. As a result, Greed was born and Twenty-One was re-born.

Around the world, the same formats had already blossomed in several countries and spawned a few other game-type shows. But rather than remain content with the triumphant return of the game show, television mutated the genre into what many called a reality program-Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Well, while we all await the formerly shy ex-bride's layout in Playboy, let's take a closer look at this reality phenomenon.

Reality programming takes a lot of different shapes. Don Hewitt will grumble, but 60 Minutes is a reality show, as are its imitators 20/20 and Dateline NBC, and the syndicated Inside Edition, Entertainment Tonight, Extra!, and Access Hollywood. Cops is reality, but so is Nova. (Cops has mutated of late, crossing over into episodes with America's Most Wanted and even The X-Files).

The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and Home and Garden Television have slates that are already reality programming, as is half of A & E Network's primetime lineup and most of Courtroom Television Network's slate. And E! Entertainment Television really took off when Mysteries and Scandals, The E! True Hollywood Story and Celebrity Profile became daily staples.

Cable networks' early economics made reality TV proliferate: It can be cheap and easy to produce, void of complicated scripts and dramatic production values, yet still be compelling television.

But all it took was a goofy paper millionaire and a bleach blonde to hold the whole genre up for examination and review. The Fox television network seems to be the first to blink, publicly stating (twice, by my count) that never again were they going to rely on reality programming stunts to fill a broken time period or pump up a sweep.

In fact, its fall lineup is noticeably devoid of the sensationalistic reality fare that had become Fox's calling card. Until they need it again, of course. Did you catch their two specials on May 16-The Last Days of The Brady Bunch (we should be so lucky) and Diff'rent Strokes: When the Laughter Died?

Just recently, United Paramount Network happily announced it would pick up two Fox favorites, Cheating Spouses and Nastiest Neighbors. A UPN spokesman was quoted in the New York Times saying, "We're happy to embrace the audience Fox is disavowing."

I wonder if they will equally embrace a coat of tar and feather, if advertisers and affiliates take offense.

Fox's style of reality programming used to be the kind of stuff that engineers would keep in their tool kits and view late at night. No viewer, it was felt, would want to watch the equivalent of a train wreck (come to think of it, it was a train wreck!) and news directors would never lower their standards to show it. Then, that gruesome footage found its way to home video and damned if it didn't start to sell pretty well!

So, it wasn't long before some desperate programmer took the shrink-wrap off the video and stuck it on the air. And, of course it performed well: a real no-brainer in the "lowest-common-denominator" school of programming.

The footage already existed and could be acquired for a song, assembling it was cheap, promoting it was easy, and there was always a time period that needed fixing badly enough to throw it in.

Thus began the trend of "too real reality"-wild pets, vicious neighbors, out-of-control vehicles and the like. And, in television's typical manner, these types of programs practically became a weekly phenomenon, dulling our senses.

And it would have continued had advertisers bought into it. But running an ad on some of these shows became like putting a banner on a guardrail behind an accident: Sure, people are watching, but for all the wrong reasons.

It's interesting to note, however, that cars crash into walls just about nightly on TLC, but the network seems to have no trouble getting an audience or selling advertising time. Sex and violence are the most popular topics on A & E's Investigative Reports, and yet it's nearly as strong a franchise as Biography.

The difference comes down to this: Is a reality show's primary goal to titillate or investigate? And speaking of Biography, the popularity of that subgenre is illustrated by no less than a half-dozen other profile programs: Bravo Portraits; Lifetime Television's Intimate Portraits; VH1's Legends, Where Are They Now and Behind the Music; MSNBC's Headliners and Legends; and a few more. Again, advertising dollars are flowing freely to this brand of reality programming.

The latest type of reality show forces real people into unreal situations, whether it's a car split in half (àla classic Candid Camera) or a bunch of people stranded on a desert isle slowly picking each other off, or trapped in a house (CBS' Survivor and upcoming Big Brother, respectively).

MTV: Music Television's The Real World began this trend of "forced reality." These formats, which have pushed the envelope even further, are already popular in Europe and have been hot for years in Japan. Producers of Survivor are reluctant to talk about the first guy voted off the island, whose next jump was in front of a train. How many people will have to die in the U.S. before advertisers bail?

The kinds of reality programs that have succeeded are those that tell a genuine story and are people-centric. Simply pointing a camera at a wall and seeing who runs into it is neither reality nor programming-it's voyeurism.

Sensational programming, real or otherwise, will certainly continue to be used in stunts and receive heavy promotion. It's a way of life for our medium, whether it's Evel Knievel making it halfway across a canyon 30 years ago or his son, Robby, jumping over a parking lot last week. Neither the idea nor the gripes about it are new.

After seeing the worst that humankind has to offer, one would hope that reality television would settle down and be content to observe and investigate, intrigue and illustrate, rather than create a situation that, at best, is uncomfortable and at worst, lethal. Fortunately, the more legit brands of reality (which have found a home on cable, not broadcast) have stayed away from the fray.

Attempts to link the worst of "reality programming" with the entire genre have clearly failed, except in the minds of the most jaded critics.

Oddly, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? was called a reality show, when in reality, it was more a game or a pageant-call this mutation "game-tertainment," a Sandy Frank term from the 1980s. The upside of the Multi-Millionaire fiasco is a rethinking of what it takes to create a reality program: Maybe a desperate time period or a small budget should not be the main reasons.

Nor should playing into the hands of viewers who long for their 15-minutes of fame by paying the price with their privacy. The glee that CBS programming chief Les Moonves must have had when he cast his two shows is a bit scary-kind of like sitting on the school steps and singling out who would be "it" that day.

My fear is that, in spite of all the breast-beating when the unexpected happens (and it will), we'll continue to out-voyeur each other, heading toward some sort of real life Howard Beale (àla Network) execution. And no one will have the guts to put their foot down and say "enough." I predict it'll take an advertiser or three, or worse, a D.C. witch-hunt.

The best reality programming is found within the mission statements of many cable networks and not in the manipulation of people for our viewing enjoyment. Let me throw out a label for those high-road practitioners: "Quality Reality Television" (QRTV). Now that is a programming concept that all of us should hope is here to stay.

Gary Lico is president and CEO of Cable Ready, a cable-programming supplier.