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Reporting on writers’ strike reinforces myth of “unscripted” reality TV genre

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

November 5th, 2007

The big myth of the “reality TV” genre is that the action isn’t scripted — that it’s “real,” not simply crafted by storytellers to achieve specific, pre-defined, calculated results. Yet lead-up stories to the looming Writer’s Guild of America strike have repeated a thread that reinforces confusion over the production, creation and content of so-called “unscripted” programming.

Take “Reality shows on tap if writers strike,” a typical USA Today story from the Associated Press, which notes that in the event of a strike, “Networks are busy mulling proposed reality projects that aren’t governed by guild contracts.”:

Viewers could start seeing an onslaught of unscripted entertainment by early next year, when popular series such as Desperate Housewives and Heroes run out of new episodes.

“I was in a network meeting today, and they were referring to the fact the timing is really good for reality producers,” said producer Mark Cronin.

He and partner Cris Abrego have been consistently busy with shows such as Flavor of Love, I Love New York and The Surreal Life.

A similar alert came from “Reality Looms: Writers’ Strike Could Change Pace of Television,” an appealingly snarky Washington Post piece on Thursday that began this way:

Dear Viewers of Television:

Do not adjust your sets.

You might soon notice even more reality television emanating from your plasma boob tube. This depends on the outcome of contract negotiations between Hollywood screenwriters and Tinseltown producers and is not the fault of your local cable providers, no matter how much you hate them.

Contracts for the 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America expired at midnight last night. Writers have a rally scheduled for tonight. Anything could happen. It’s Hollywood.

If writers walk out, you might see more “unscripted” reality television, which is by and large produced by non-guild writers. In a worst-case scenario, this could result in such things as reruns of “Temptation Island” or even “Anchorwoman.”

While technically accurate — so-called “reality” shows don’t usually involve WGA members — news reports have generally not clarified for readers that these shows do, indeed, involve writers. Non-union writers (and story editors, video editors, and hands-on producers and directors), all of whom collaborate to achieve the networks’, executive producers’, and integrated advertisers’ desired story arcs.

Inside the media industry, this is perfectly understood. Outside the industry, not so much. For example, how many regular reality TV viewers know that groups of reality TV writers have, with the help of the WGA, attempted to sue producers of reality shows such as “The Bachelor” for violating labor laws and working them in “sweatshop conditions,” claiming that their storytelling services have been drastically underpaid?

I’ve written for years about the manipulative and varied ways in which reality TV shows are scripted:

scripted to hawk integrated advertisers’ products in dialogue plugs (see: every episode of Fox’s “American Idol,” ever), set dressing and as integral to competition show challenges;

– scripted to conform to regressive gender norms;

– scripted to reinforce dangerous ideas about beauty, body and violence against women; and,

scripted to appeal to the most base notions about women, people of color, LGBT people, low-income people, youth and more.

Yet whenever I write about these shows, and whenever I speak with students on high school and college campuses about the commercially-manipulated, ideologically rigid reality TV genre (NOTE: contact WIMN if you’re interested in organizing a multimedia lecture on reality TV - or on other issues related to women, news, media, politics and/or pop culture), students — and sometimes faculty and staff — constantly tell me that while they know that the shows are manipulated by producers, they also believe that the shows portray “real people” in “real situations,” interacting with each other in a “real way.”

In a culture which doesn’t emphasize (and generally avoids) media literacy education, many reality TV viewers simply do not understand the role of paid storytellers in the creation and production of this genre. Because of that context, it would have been helpful — and could have done some clarifying good — if reporting on the WGA strike had included a discussion of the active role that non-union writers, editors and producers play in scripting so-called unscripted television. Instead, the constant stream of headlines and warnings about how all we’ll get is reality TV when “the writers go on strike” contributes to the misleading impression that the genre really does function without writers, as if these shows were documentaries rather than the fictions they truly are.

The most notable exception I’ve seen to the confused “reality isn’t written” WGA strike coverage came in a brief, 143-word blurb in Entertainment Weekly’s Nov. 9 issue. Headlined, “Bubble-Bursting Alert! Reality TV Has Writers,” Jennifer Armstrong breaks it down for us in EW’s “News and Notes; Strike Watch” section:

Here’s a weird postscript to the recent charges that MTV’s The Hills is particularly staged well, more staged than other reality shows. Last year, the Writers Guild of America tried to unionize the folks who give unscripted programs such as America’s Next Top Model a sense of plot and pacing they even went so far as to picket the CW show (in coordinating T-shirts, naturally). But when their efforts fell massively short, executive producers replaced writers with story “editors,” who are covered by a different union. For the most part. Now with a possible writers’ strike, there’s an outside chance that a few of these dialogue polishers who are employed on such series as ABC’s Dancing With the Stars could walk off the job, since they have some limited WGA coverage…

Responsible entertainment reporters would do well to follow Armstrong’s lead and run more stories delving into the issue of who actually scripts the unscripted schlock we’re likely be buried under if the WGA strike is not speedily resolved.

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