Reality TV


On what must have been an exceedingly slow news day in 2003, editors at The New York Times chose a quip I made about television as their Quotation of the Day. I was troubled by a trend that even back then was mucking up the dial, so I said: "It breaks my heart to find myself within the cesspool of reality TV shows."

And that was before scheming wannabes tricked police and media in Colorado into thinking their child was trapped in a runaway balloon, and a publicity-crazed couple crashed a White House state dinner by fooling the Secret Service. For what? To gain admission to the increasingly foul world of reality television.

My dad, Allen Funt, is widely credited with inventing reality TV in 1948 - even though the term didn't enter the lexicon until several decades later. Having watched him develop the process of what he liked to call "catching people in the act of being themselves" on Candid Camera, and having had the good fortune to follow in his footsteps with my own lengthy run doing the show, I suppose this type of television is what I know best.

And here's what I know: my dad would not have been happy with the term "reality TV," nor would he be a fan of what the genre has devolved into. Occurrences like those in Colorado and Washington would be enough to give the format a bad name, if some producers of recent shows hadn't done such a fine job of it already.

What exactly constitutes reality TV nowadays? The term is used without much precision to describe shows devoted to everything from spouse swapping to bug swallowing. A subcategory of competition shows, starting with Millionaire and leading to American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, is also loosely called "reality." But these are really tamer productions that once would have been called "game shows."

Within the industry "reality" now refers to any program for which there is no formal script. Producers call it "manipulated reality." But that private description would be damaging to the genre's public appeal: the presumption among viewers that things on the screen are happening spontaneously and without contrivance. Never mind that any semblance of spontaneity is usually preceded by careful casting and elaborate staging, and is followed by slick editing and artful packaging.

In fact, nothing on television is real. The very act of aiming a camera and taking pictures creates distortion. The ensuing steps in editing and transmission cause further separation from reality, no matter what it's called.

Ironically, the appeal of today's so-called reality programs has increased in direct proportion to the degree to which the shows have departed from reality. Many of the successful unscripted shows rely on professional entertainers - from the Osbournes to the Osmonds - to attract viewers. Enhanced production values and dramatic themes - beginning with CBS's Survivor - bring these shows much closer in feel to the standard scripted fare that viewers have traditionally enjoyed.

In hard times, audiences may be drawn to unscripted shows for the raw dialogue, seemingly natural tension, and apparent unpredictability. But most viewers are not interested in sitting through scenes that mirror their own real lives - particularly if those lives include things like unemployment and unpaid bills. So what we have now isn't so much reality TV as it is plain old not-so-real TV - with lower budgets.

Although such programs tell us little about the reality of our behavior, their appeal may say something about the reality of our society. Reality TV fits neatly within today's broader media landscape that includes dumbing-down of content, frenetic pacing, and increasing harshness in everything from sports and video games, to movies and TV.

But before we froth too much about the sins of current reality programming, we should remember that the antics shown on US television remain tame compared with what attracts viewers in other countries. Even some of the milder programs, from Survivor (Sweden) all the way back to America's Funniest Home Videos (Japan), were developed and popularized overseas.

As for the recent stunt involving the uninvited White House guests, where did that have its roots? Well, in 1948, with his hidden audio recorder rolling, my father brazenly drove up to the gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and informed the guard that he had something important to discuss with President Truman. A fairly humorous exchange followed. But when the guard stated conclusively that uninvited guests would be dealt with severely, my dad had the good sense to drive away.

Maybe that's the problem today: few know where to draw the line.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in USA Today.

Index of Previous Columns