THE WRITER'S REALITYComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Friday, June 10, 2005

I'd be interested to hear your views on reality TV--is it harmful to script writers' chances? Do you think it's changing the rules of scripted TV? Or is it something you don't have time to keep up with since you're trying to keep abreast of what's out there in scripted?
Well, so-called reality TV (really semi-scripted TV; nothing real about it) does not help the employment prospects of fictional (i.e. fully scripted) TV writers. The WGA is trying to unionize reality TV writers, with some difficulty as producers like to pretend that there are no scripts for them, and when shown the scripts, pretend they were written at night by mysterious gnomes who only ask for milk and cookies, and disappear if you so much as thank them. I do know one showrunner who's created and run an RTV show. So in that sense it's just another medium to write for.

Semi-scripted TV is definitely affecting fully scripted TV. Just look at mockumentary-style shows like Trailer Park Boys, which use all the moves and editing techniques of "reality TV." Or, to put it another way, reality TV has shown producers just how little production value they need if the characters and the action is compelling enough. (Some claim Arrested Development is heavily RTV influenced, but I don't see it. It looks like an ordinary single camera sitcom to me.)

I don't watch RTV much at all. I find it mostly too inane, and far too little information per minute. I mean, talk about vamping. Stretch, stretch, stretch, till the material is so thin you could fall asleep. But many writers I've interviewed adore The Amazing Race and other shows. RTV is all about the primal conflicts: competition for resources and mates. And that's entertainment.

In the long run, it's all storytelling. Some RTV shows will continue. Competition-plus-travelogue shows like Survivor and Amazing Race will probably survive. But so will good scripted TV.

Frankly, with new cable channels popping up everywhere, you'd think it would be a great time to be a TV writer. Remember when there were only three networks? You don't? Never mind, you're too young. When you're older you'll understand.


Thanks for the answer. It will be interesting to see in the future how it further impacts scripted shows. It's a good time to be watching TV.

I think the vamping is worst in the high-concept reality shows, the ones that have a big hook behind them. This is probable because of the channel-flipping factor; if someone flips to the show with no previous knowledge, they need someone to cue them as to what's going on: "All those women want to be with that man because they think he's rich, but really he's not, and he's trying to fool them into thinking he is." Without that knowledge, a channel-flipper will get confused and flip on past.

Scripted shows can deal with channel-flipping by slipping the repeated exposition into the dialogue. Reality shows have to do this with "confessionals" or with voice-overs, and either one can slow the show down.

I do actually remember three-channel TV, though I was rather young when we got cable... I don't remember the exact age but I know that I was old enough to ask my parents' permission to watch R-rated movies on HBO, and young enough to get turned down.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:38 AM  

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