Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Reality of Reality TV: Part 1

If anyone who knows me personally, you'd know that I'm not a fan. In retrospect, who really is?

Working in the production world is hard because starting out, most of the jobs you can get fairly easily are in this field. I've declared to some friends and I'm declaring here on the internet this one point I want to get across: I'm done with Reality TV. There's something totally unethical about it and I want to get it off my chest. I don't mean any disrespect to any of the people I've worked with, mainly, they're just trying to make a living. This anger is not towards them in anyway, the anger I feel is geared more towards the executives and the production offices that are often too far removed from the process to have any sort of sense of the "reality" that goes into making their "reality tv" shows.

This entry is separated into two parts. The first part I want to spend talking about the success of reality television, like it or not, it's very successful and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Part two will talk about why its often abused and seen as highly unethical. So, without further intrusion, here's 5 reasons why Reality TV is what it is and why.

1. It's cheap to produce.
2. It's fast to produce.
3. It's disposable and doesn't need a long term multi-platform distribution plan.
4. It's sensational for the viewer.
5. Relies on the key axiom: everyone wants to be on TV.

Cheap and fast go hand in hand as far as this goes because reality tv doesn't need to look high quality. If it were high quality, chances are it wouldn't be cheap, or if by some miracle they were able to keep it cheap, it sure as hell wouldn't be fast to make. So, when thinking penny-wise, you can't have all three, but you can get a good mix of at least two.

What makes a production look high quality are the crafts people used to make the lights perfect, the wardrobe and make-up spotless, and the portrayal of the characters as something seeming "professional." Reality TV needs none of these things and because these things take a good bit of skill most of these people belong to unions and union contracts are very expensive for productions to take on. Also, unions are very strict on how many hours their members can work before the producer is required to pay overtime and meal penalties (penalties for not eating every 6 hours on the dot), and all that can add up very very fast. If I calculated the amount of overtime I could've made on some of the shows I've worked I would have very easily made double or triple what I originally got.

Perhaps the biggest boost to the whole reality tv thing is the writer's strike that happened in 2007 - 2008. Of all things, this more than any other has probably hurt the scripted tv industry and tipped it in favor of reality based programming. the WGA union decided to walk-off the job over royalties involving dvd sales for tv shows that had never been clearly laid out in their members' contracts. At the end of the day an entire tv season went by without any scripted programming which opened the flood gates for the "reality" world. Since all that happened, we have yet to reach a point where we were "pre-strike" in terms of writers who are employed and scripted shows that are being produced. In plain speak, the WGA took a double barreled shot gun and shot themselves in the foot. Now, the cost of producing a scripted show has risen even higher, so high, most networks are doing less and less of them.

Here's some hard data, the average cost of one scripted television show is in the area of a million dollars per episode, often times more. If you look at the premium channels and top rated network shows, it could be as much more, as much making a block buster. Reality tv costs far less than that and because no one has to write it, it gets done very quickly. Best of all, no one has to worry about making money after it premiers on TV and we can all live happily ever after.

Reality TV shows are disposable, they're here today, gone tomorrow, and if they get a next season, you'll probably forget about who was in the first. It's disposable because it doesn't need to be on your dvd shelf and you don't need to go out and buy t-shirts, participate in fan clubs, or even do much except watch it. Sure, there's always a fan club for everything and I'm sure reality tv has some bored and confused fan club out there just waiting on the next big thing like, "the biggest, biggest loser 7" or "crazy suburban mom season 3." Who wouldn't want to wait for those right?

Now, usually a reality tv show will get a marathon run somewhere towards the end of it's season or if it gets slated for a second season, it will get re-run episodes in order to remind people that there's another season coming out. This form of recycling is not new to television and still generates money (or else they wouldn't do it) but, for most shows, the end of the line stops here.

Best of all, the only ingredient required to make a reality tv show is something sensational. You know, like some former has-been-celebrity to come out of the woodwork and announce that he or she is looking for a new baby's mama/baby's daddy. Or, a rich family in a Beverly Hills like neighborhood has a hard time connected with one another and being "normal" because they're so filthy rich. Who wouldn't want to watch that? I know I for one am a huge fan of shows about parents who have way too many kids... mainly because I just like laughing at them and their countless little "accidents." Best of all, whenever our main characters get emotional for the umpteenth time, there's always some music lightly blaring underneath in order to enhance all this "reality." You really can make a reality show about anything. Take the right music and mix it with people who are crazy enough to do anything for their 15 seconds of fame (oh yeah, it's no longer your 15 minutes of fame, in the reality world you only get seconds) and you've got a hit show.

Or so we think...

All this boils down to the fact that everyone wants to be on tv. Or at least, executives who produce reality shows seem to think that way. You could even extend that axiom and say everyone wants to work in tv and then you'll be about where I am. See, I do want to work in TV, but I don't want to work on a solid fixed rate that is based on a certain amount of work, then work double what I'm getting compensated for and told "too bad, you should've thought about it before you signed your deal memo." Far too often deal memos are vague and written by someone who doesn't understand production.

I don't know about Joe Public but as far as for being in front of the cameras, I for one can skip out on the whole reality tv thing. It only shows certain parts of you, generally the parts you don't like, you always look fat, and 99% of the time you're not getting paid for whatever it's worth.

Taking all this into consideration it's definitely a good foot in the door that can lead to many different types of things when it comes to production. It's a good starting point. You learn from a lot of things that go wrong and most of what you should learn is "how not to run things."

Next: why I feel reality tv is unethical.

1 comment:

  1. Well thought out. I must admit I fall to the reality train of "American Idol", but other than that I've never really watched any other reality shows. It does make me sad though, cause it's kind of dumbed down the TV market, which for a short span seemed to be getting smarter and more cinematic in quality.