A scan of the most appalling reality shows of the past year may be cause for dismay, but people who work in the genre note another side to the spectrum.
“I think there’s a lot of redeeming reality television out there,” said Jason Carbone, founder of the production company Good Clean Fun and executive producer of shows like Tia & Tamera on the Style Network. “I think that it’s probably not as loud as some of the shows.”
Carbone suggested that, like every type of television, reality TV has cycles, with current trends perhaps influenced by viewers’ need to forget the economy. “They like to feel better about their own lives,” he said, “and reality TV offers up a lot of people whose lives are far worse than our own.”
So we may be at a particularly deplorable point in the pendulum-swing at the moment. Also driving the seeming epidemic of drivel is the ever-expanding maw of airtime that has to be filled and the need to hook an audience with a quick, easily grasped gimmick lest it move on to another channel.
“We don’t have the luxury of a long sell,” Marc Juris, executive vice president and chief operating officer of truTV, said in a telephone interview. “Everything’s a headline sell. That has pushed a lot of people into the headline without the story.”
A good reality show, he said, is made up of the same elements as a good scripted show: strong characters, compelling story lines. Some producers forget that in the rush to fill the schedule, which is why he tends to demand multiple episodes of a prospective show.
“Anyone can make a good pilot; I want to see two, three, four,” he said. “Just to say, `I have a transgender pawnbroker,’ that might be interesting, but do we like this character?”
A lot of lousy shows will end up on the air nonetheless, just as there are plenty of lousy paintings, pop songs or any other kind of creative work.
“There is always more bad than good,” Juris said. “You need a lot of volume to get anything good.”
Carbone lamented that shows these days are shaped largely by the profit motive rather than by some individual’s vision; every network wants to have a better quarter than the one before. “I am being continually asked, `I want bigger, louder, crazier characters,’ ” he said. “I’m not sure how much bigger, louder, crazier we can get.”
Which leads to the ultimate reality-TV question, the one raised by Kaufman’s novel and by the extremes of 2012’s programs: Are there places this genre will never go?
“I hope so,” Carbone said. “I don’t ever want to see a stoning or a hanging or anything involving death. But if you had told me when I was a little boy that someone could go on a television show and two hours later marry a millionaire, I would have told you you were nuts.”