Someone I know posted an entry on Facebook this morning along the lines of “Every time you watch a reality TV show, a book dies.”
Ironically, I died. Not completely, but just that little bit more inside.
Where other people have photos of their wives, husbands, and kids at home, I have framed title screen captures from every show I’ve ever worked on, show memorabilia and a wall of promotional content from Dancing With the Stars, Basketball Wives and Flipping Out, the latter of which still feels like some of the best work I’ve ever done. My bathroom sports photos of everyone from Ted Mack to the cast of Basketball Wives LA, and there’s a signed photo of Allen Funt staring back at me from my desk right now.
I collect vintage television remotes and drive a car with tags that read 02BINTV. My hobby is writing and lecturing internationally on making reality shows and I answer maybe two dozen emails a week from would-be creators, producers and reality pros just looking for a word or two of advice. I took a year of my life to write a book about the storytelling craft in reality television after wondering why I couldn’t find any out there that didn’t focus solely on selling original shows.
I’ve coined terms that are finding purchase all over the industry, like “Cheerio Theory,” which explains the reality producing conundrum where better content tends to drift to the front and back of a docuseries season, making the middle of the run harder to execute because we’re blowing the whole story wad on the first three episodes and the finale. I’ve thrown myself into more arguments about poor role models in reality TV than I can count, and back myself up with the words of some of the most respected media pros in the industry. I quote reality’s harshest critics as I think we have more in common than we’re at odds — heck, it seems like Jennifer Pozner (feminist media critic and author of the very good “Reality Bites Back”) and I are in touch multiple times every week.
I’ve always loved television, and I love reality television especially because it’s like a puny, tenacious kid. It hasn’t grown up as fast as its brothers and sisters, so it’s generally loud and tries to call a lot of attention to itself with cheap stunts. It wants to be respected, but it just can’t help making the cheap plays for attention, even though it’s easier to appreciate when it’s quiet and thoughtful.
I know I take reality TV bashing a little too hard sometimes. Sure, most of it’s junk. Most of everything is junk. Junk with little jewels deep in the pile somewhere that you really have to seek out.
I’m not implying that it’s gonna be me, but I don’t think reality television has yet had its Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, or Walt Disney the way other kinds of TV and movies have. There is a difference between being successful and being a pioneer of something, an innovator. 51 Minds has had quite a run with their celebrity reality shows and talent for spinning their old shows off into new ones. Thom Beers built a hell of a brand at Original. Bourdain’s shows with Zero Point Zero are masterful and some of the only examples I can readily state of a final product that approximates a real vision centered around a single creator.
There are miles to go in reality television, and I’m really looking forward to what comes… and no books will be harmed. I’m of the mind that nothing will ever beat a really good book, but that reality TV can bring you escape, glimpses into worlds outside of your own, and inspire in much the same way that the best books, movies and other types of entertainment can — and in some ways, even more effectively.
We just all have to agree that it’s time to take risks again, move forward, and continue the evolution of reality television beyond the conversation about platforms and the novelty of other forms of delivery. Story wants to grow up.