Troy Devolld on the War Between Scripted and Reality TV

Just one of Troy's big hits
Just one of Troy’s big hits

by Troy Devolld

Aside from the legions of justifiably peeved comedy and drama writers displaced by Reality content’s encroachment onto their turf, many critics deride Reality TV as mind-numbing junk. In many cases, I agree with them — but I also believe that it’s wrong to assume that it’s all garbage.

What I personally find so amusing about the critics who compulsively tilt at Reality TV like Don Quixote to a windmill is the dual standard by which they judge Reality against other genres.

Some of them complain about Reality’s almost uniformly beautiful cast-members while simultaneously giving a pass to the gorgeous casts of shows like Friends or Gossip Girl. Others moan about the genre’s unbelievable situations and setups… you know, because a bunch of celebrities hosting a backyard talent show on The Surreal Life is so much more far-fetched than that Star Trek episode where The U.S.S. Enterprise finds itself awash in self-replicating, faceless, purring throw-pillows called “tribbles.”

Many critics also feel sure that the numbskulls who turn up to participate in Reality shows are somehow affecting viewers’ own behavior with their immoral, anything-for-fame antics. It’s perfectly acceptable to those same critics, however, for a scripted show to present a sympathetic serial killer like Dexter, a sex-addled writer like David Duchovny’s character in Californication, or a meth-selling high school science teacher as played to perfection by Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. Again, though, the moment a booze-fueled fight spirals out of control on Jersey Shore, it’s practically the end of the civilized world.

To that sort of criticism, Professor Henry Jenkins, while Director of Contemporary Media Studies at MIT in 2005, commented, “Don’t look at the characters on Reality TV, look at the audience usage of those characters. Contemptible behavior, even if successful, is still condemned by an increasingly participatory audience.”

Another common belief among critics is that the success of Reality Television depends on the lowest common denominator of viewers tuning in. Not so. Witness the success of cable’s Bravo network, home to Flipping Out, The Real Housewives of New York and Bethenny Getting Married? among other recent hits. Bravo’s sponsors have flocked to the network for years to access their statistically affluent, educated audience… an audience that just happens to love Reality shows.

Product placement and integration in Reality Television also raises the ire of critics. In recent years, shows like The Apprentice have served up challenges that incorporate sponsors like Domino’s Pizza even as pizza-adverse contestants on The Biggest Loser chomp away on Subway sandwiches and Extra sugar-free gum. Product overload can be seriously distracting, but is it really any more distracting than seeing these products written into successful traditionally scripted shows?

In 2007, sitcom creator Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond) testified before the Telecommunications Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee (on behalf of the Writers Guild of America West and the Screen Actors Guild) regarding the pervasiveness of product integration and its impact on story. Phil hilariously summarized, by screening a string of clips, a storyline on the scripted series Seventh Heaven in which characters relentlessly plugged Oreo cookies right up to the moment one character proposed to another by presented his beloved with a wedding ring — concealed inside an Oreo cookie.

For all of Reality’s faults, I still liken critics who blanketly bash it while favoring sitcoms and dramas to wine snobs who can’t just enjoy an orange soda now and then. Good Reality TV rivals the best traditionally scripted television for entertainment value, and its positive impact on popular culture can be felt just as deeply, if not more so, than its negative.
Okay, I can sense that I’m going to have to sell you on that one. Consider the number of people emboldened by shows like The Biggest Loser to make positive changes in their lives. The popular Reveille series for NBC started a national movement to get in shape that echoed across America, making heroes (and moguls) of personal trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. While the show has been taken to task by critics for its wall-to-wall product placement, one can hardly argue that any other show in recent history has done so much measurable good for viewers.

Also worthy of note is Reality Television’s lead role in broadening minority representation on television. Reality shows typically sample a far larger ethnic base than scripted television; one need go no further than shows like Big Brother or, again, The Biggest Loser, to support that claim. One of my favorite shows in recent years is RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which a number of hopefuls compete to become the next drag superstar in a brilliantly innovative competition presided over by legendary drag performer RuPaul. A show of this kind couldn’t have existed on television mere decades before, when LGBT performers were simply told that “gays have no place on television” and Lance Loud was considered an on-screen anomaly.

While criticism of Reality Television continues to trend toward the negative, my take on the stacks of lousy reviews it generates is this — well-executed story with engaging characters and surprising turns should be offered immunity to preconceived prejudices against a genre that’s already spent its entire life being lambasted as a critical “less than.”

Sure, a lot of what’s on is downright distasteful, poorly executed, and dimwitted, but can’t you say the same thing about gross-out, male-driven sitcoms and ripped-from-the-headlines past-their-prime legal shows?

Come on, critics — start playing fair.

Troy DeVolld is a longtime LB buddy and one of the masters of the reality TV genre. The above is a sample from his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market. Buy it. Even if you’re absolutely certain you’ll never write anything but fiction. Cuz, hey, you never know, yeah?