Since its inception, television has been alternately hailed
or hammered as the vehicle that allows viewers to escape from reality. But one of the
hottest recent trends in cable-television programming is inviting viewers to escape to
The huge success of reality programming is cable's
newest -- and perhaps happiest -- reality. Entire networks -- including The History
Channel, CBS Eye on People and the whole family of Discovery Networks U.S. units -- are
based to a large measure on the lives of real people and wildlife, or, in the case of E!
Entertainment Television, on the lives of real wild people.
A number of reality series and specials, although
relatively new, have already received critical and popular acclaim. These include The
Learning Channel's Trauma: Life in the ER, which expands to an hour for its
second season this fall, and Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, which won a
CableACE award in the most recent, and apparently final, competition. Yet these are hardly
Ordinary people perform extraordinary acts (Real Life,
Real Heroes, on TLC), while their pint-sized counterparts do much the same (Real
Kids, Real Adventure, on Discovery Channel.).
You can follow the lives of fearless forensic pathologists
as they crack medical mysteries (Medical Detectives, TLC); stick through every
stitch with large-animal veterinarians (Wildlife Vet, coming in July on TBS
Superstation) or small-animal veterinarians (Emergency Vets, Animal Planet); follow
27 adolescents as they learn and grow together at a summer camp (Bug Juice, Disney
Channel); share the pathos and pain of women as they endure the trauma of makeovers (Fashion
Emergency, E!); and get up-close and personal with lifeguards (L.A. Lifeguards,
coming in June on TBS), pit crews (NASCAR at 50, coming in May on TBS), fashion
models (Model and Model TV, E!) and rodeo cowboys (I Witness, Eye on
Joked Gary Lico, whose company, Cable Ready, sells
programming to cable networks, has provided a number of reality series, "It's
accelerated everyone's 15 minutes of fame. If you haven't been interviewed for a
reality show, then you're probably a nobody."
That really is part of the genre's message:
Everyone's story, given the proper context and technological support, is worth
Lico is also talking to a number of MSOs about reality
programming for their system-level local-origination or news channels -- a phenomenon
that, should it catch fire, could indefinitely extend the popularity of the genre.
"There are stories everywhere," said Geoffrey
Darby, president of Eye on People, in explaining the realty-television phenomenon,
"and there is a fascination with them if they're well-crafted. Someone once said
that TV is real life with the boring parts taken out. You could take your life, edit out
the boring parts and probably find a fascinating story. That's what we look
'YOU ARE THERE'
While all can be described as nonfiction, reality programs
cover a wide range of approaches and styles. Some, such as History's biographies,
employ a more traditional approach to the genre, blending archival and new footage with
interviews and re-creations.
Others utilize more of a "you-are-there" format,
plunging their cameras into the middle of events and letting them unfold as they will.
Disney's Bug Juice may be the purest example of
that approach. For 56 straight days, Disney's crews followed the adventures of 27
teen-age boys and girls at Maine's Camp Waziyatah. To get 18 half-hour installments,
Disney shot 1,800 hours of footage. There's no narrator, minimal graphics, no
on-screen interviewer and no host.
"If Seinfeld doesn't need a host, why does
reality TV?" asked Rich Ross, Disney's senior vice president of programming and
production. "People know what they're seeing. The critical and ratings success
is telling us that kids get it.
"You talk about ensemble comedy or ensemble drama, but
you can count on your fingers the number of times that ensemble drama has been done in
reality TV. You watch them as individuals and you understand what they're struggling
with. You understand the dynamics of youth today."
There's no doubt that as the profiles of the young
campers begin to emerge, the impact is palpable. No less a figure than the irreverent Lico
was stirred by Bug Juice.
"The first episode literally moved me to tears,"
Lico said. "I don't know if I had a bad experience at camp, or what. I guess it
was the way that they were able to get inside the kids' heads. It's as good as
anything that I've seen."
Whatever the approach, reality television has been a smash,
attributable to a variety of driving forces.
Steve Cheskin, vice president of programming at TLC,
theorized that the fast pace of reality TV appeals to young audiences leading fast-paced
lives -- and shooting videos themselves.
"For people who have grown up with short attention
spans, this is exciting," Cheskin said. "The new generation of watchers are used
to a certain kind of pacing and look. I describe it as the difference between a film look
and a TV look. With film, you're slower, cinematic, beautiful. With TV, you have a
faster pace, story lines, cutting. There's more of a sense of urgency.
"Home videos are part of what's driving the
reality genre. People are catching things on tape that they never would have caught
before," Cheskin said.
Just as viewers are more comfortable with the quick cuts of
reality television, the industry now boasts a whole generation of documentarians with
decades of experience in the genre.
"The advent of the docudrama in the late '50s and
'60s helped to train people," Darby said, "but we weren't willing to
take a full step into it. Now, there are people out there who can make it entertaining, as
opposed to, 'Here's the cheetah, the cheetah goes 70 miles per hour, duh de duh
de duh.' That was what documentaries were for a long time. Now, it's,
'Here's John. John hunts the cheetah.' It's the way that we enter the
While reality television has scored on broadcast
television, cable -- with its willingness to take risks, coupled with its insatiable need
for programming -- has invigorated the genre.
"The emergence of cable proved that there was an
appetite for this programming," Lico said, "but you have to point to one network
in particular: Discovery. They really proved -- and [Discovery Communications Inc.
chairman] John Hendricks goes to bed every night thanking God that he could prove -- that
the American public has an appetite for high-end documentaries."
Added Fran Shea, senior vice president of programming for
E!, "We knew that we couldn't deliver what other networks had because they
already had it. So I knew that we had to do something different."
Yet another factor in the growth of reality television is
its production economies, although comparisons of production costs across genres can be
misleading, said W. Clark Bunting, senior vice president and general manager of Animal
"Purely from a production standpoint, the costs are
reasonable and, depending on the topic, you can get a very good rating. If you compare
production costs to ratings potential, it's very efficient programming," Bunting
Bunting put the costs of producing one hour of
"blue-chip" reality programming at about $500,000, compared with the $750,000 to
$1.2 million that a fictional hour might cost -- estimates that were echoed by Cheskin and
At TBS, however, executive producer Jim Head said he
hasn't seen any cost savings from the superstation's reality fare.
"I don't know if that's really the case for
us," Head said. "Anytime you do something well, it costs money. That's the
reality of television. We have very high production values for our documentary
There may also be hidden costs waiting to snare the
unsuspecting producer, as Darby discovered when he commissioned a program about the making
of an independent film.
"We thought that it would be great fun to follow them
all the way to [the] Sundance [Film Festival]," Darby recalled. "We sent out a
crew of 10 and followed them for about four weeks. Guess what? It was a real dud. We
finally pulled the plug. They were never going to get that film made."
He insisted that reality TV is just as costly as producing
"It's still storytelling and craft," Darby
said. You don't have special effects, that's for sure, and the production crew
is definitely smaller. We put more effort into editing and postproduction, and you have
the vagaries if this stuff doesn't work."
To minimize such false starts, many reality-television
producers sequence their efforts as much as the genre will allow. At E!, Shea and her
colleagues begin each reality production with a rundown -- the closest thing to a script
that reality programming can accommodate.
"We always start with that: a guess at where we
believe the shoot will take us," Shea said. "Often, it takes us someplace
different. It's really a list of questions that we want answered. Then, you see what
unfolds, and you keep amending."
Whether more or less expensive, reality programming is now
so widespread that even some practitioners wonder if the market can bear any more.
"My suspicion," Bunting said, "is that
it's cyclical. There's a sufficient amount of this programming available now
that we may say, 'This will wax and wane, like most other genres.' There will
always be an interested section of the marketplace, but when you look at cop chases, when
animals attack, stings -- at that point, you've reached saturation."
For the most part, though, the cable industry remains
gung-ho about reality TV. Eye on People's I Witness will air a reality program
this month that follows the lives of medical interns at a New Orleans hospital, while TBS,
in addition to its upcoming specials, will feature Killer Weather, depicting
ordinary people caught up in nature's fury, as part of its "Disaster Sunday
II" in August.
"People are fascinated with weather-related
things," Head said. "Part of it is that this is something that occurs naturally
in life, and that is awesome beyond our control. Part of it is that we like being
In April, TLC introduced an 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. showcase
called Adrenaline Rush Hour for its reality programming. And Cable Ready is
shopping a reality drama called Betty Bus about the adventures of four people on a
London-to-Hong Kong bus trip.
DON'T HAVE A COW
One point on which all reality programmers agree: The
genre's explosive growth has revived sometimes-moribund standards-and-practices
departments by posing difficult new questions about the appropriateness of certain topics
and footage. The danger is that networks -- like the schlocky syndicated talk shows --
will begin to program to people's baser instincts, for the shock value alone.
Predation has always been a controversial issue swirling
around wildlife documentaries, but there are even heavier debates about where the line
should be drawn.
At TLC, Cheskin rejected a program about riots that he
found "violent and scary."
"It wasn't really putting things in the context
that we would have at TLC," Cheskin said. "It would have done a great rating for
us, but it wasn't appropriate for TLC."
Darby discovered this when a producer pitched him on a
gritty skydiving documentary.
"There was actually some footage where a parachute
didn't open," Darby said. "The guy hit the ground and bounced. It turned
out that this was all you remembered from the show. My fear is that as we become more
immune to shock, we'll end up seeing more of that."