Unscripted Unreality TV

Years ago—I guess this was in 2003—I went to a high school reunion. While I was there, I talked for a while with an old classmate who had migrated out to Los Angeles to work in television production. He was an editor who specialized reality TV. He wasn’t especially proud of his genre, but it paid the bills.

He told me something that I remember very clearly. These shows were unbelievably cheap compared to what were then “regular” scripted shows. You needed fewer people and less time to make an episode, and on top of that, the ratings were great. Or at least, given how cheap they were, the ratings were plenty good. Here is what he said: over the coming years you’re going to see more and more and more of this stuff. They’re going to drive out other shows. The superheated economics of unscripted television generated an unstoppable geyser-like spew of shows.

I happened to see an article today about the smoking crater that is the cable business, and this chart caught my eye. My high school buddy’s prophecy was playing out brilliantly! Why pay writers when your audience will happily watch unpaid attention-seekers do the reality TV monkey dance?

Given where the industry is headed, you can’t really say that unscripted shows saved cable television, but it sure made the crash landing a lot softer.

Incidentally, my friend passed along a few other nuggets of wisdom. One is that people are so eager to be on these shows that they don’t read the contracts carefully (surprise!). And when they see the final cut of the show, they sometimes feel humiliated and want to sue somebody. But it’s too late. They learn that the contract they signed not only specified that they might look stupid, but that the editors would go out of their way to make them look stupid. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s there in the contract.

Which brings me to the last thing I learned that night. My editor friend told me, with all the footage he was given, he could tell any story he wanted. Want a love story? A bitter rivalry? A feel-good romp? It’s all there, given enough tape and a skilled editor. A reality show isn’t “scripted”, but it’s sure as hell edited to tell an entertaining story. That story may bear little relationship to what “actually happened,” whatever that means. But reality was never the point of reality TV, in the same sense that wrestling was never the point of TV wrestling. I’m paying you for something cheap and sweet. Reality need not apply.