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In Features, Issues

REALITY CHECK

By David Adler

REALITY IS "a trend not a fad," said NBC’s Scott Sassa confidently if confusingly to the New York Times this past summer. But that was before 9/11. So what is the reality of "reality" television right now? And what can the genre offer to independents?

Some answers may have been found at the Real Screen Summit, which took place over Valentine’s Day in Washington, D.C. Intended to bring together cable executives and producers interested in "reality" (and non-fiction in general), this year’s conference also saw a healthy influx of independent documentary makers who, after all, have been working in "reality" long before Project Greenlight and Survivor.

Reality – or rather, reality that has been reconstructed or manipulated – "first got its start with MTV’s Real World," according to Steve Rosenbaum (Tales of Ground Zero), who is the CEO of BNNtv.com. "Real World was pitched as a soap opera by soap producers… but it was too expensive. They went with something cheaper – no actors, no scripts, just ‘content managers.’" The reality-soap was born.

Reality took on its more virulent form – the reality game show – in the marshy cultures of the low countries. Belgium was the home of The Mole, and the production company Endemol (Fear Factor, Big Brother) is based in Holland. The Eurotrash invasion of reality game shows probably peaked as a trend (or fad) last summer at the broadcast network level. But in the world of cable, the genre is still performing. The Learning Channel alone has two breakout reality hits: Trading Spaces and Junkyard Wars.

Though no clear trend emerged at this year’s summit, at the very least it allowed producers with reality dreams to buttonhole programmers from Court TV, the Food Network and other major cable networks. (One rumor: the celebrity version of a well-known reality show was canceled because the best known celebrity the producers could get to participate was Monica Lewinsky.) Panels comprised of agents and producers had additional, often self-congratulatory, insights: "There are very real limits about how far we would go with a reality show"; "I would personally refuse to sell a show like Temptation Island"; and "Murder in Small Town X didn’t work because it was too complicated." The question of whether or not the genre is inherently toxic – and more importantly, still of interest to audiences – didn’t come up so much.

So where is reality headed? For BNN’s Rosenbaum, "Reality is still defining itself… Networks are [now] looking for stuff that is not mean spirited." Programmers from reality’s European heartland have a similar take these days. Hilary Bell, a Channel 4 executive commented, "Observational documentaries look fresh again." And Stefan Wieduwilt, program director of MMI Entertainment, told the C21 newsletter, "‘Reality-soap’ is through in Germany, but ‘docu-soap’ is having its second springtime."

It is clear that the economics of reality – no actors, writers or, sometimes, even directors – make it attractive for cash-strapped cable networks, but none of this is necessarily good news for the independent producer. While reality television shows live or die on the appeal of their concepts, it can be difficult for independents to bring these concepts to market.

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