Reality TV: Brilliant mirror on society, or sign of end times? Four reality insiders debateBy AARON BARNHART
The Kansas City Star
For this package of stories and videos on the decade of reality television, I interviewed dozens of reality TV stars, network executives, reality-show producers and smart people whove thought about reality TV a lot more than I have.
Many of these people were reduced to drive-by quotes in the interest of telling a compelling story. But they have much more to say, so Im letting them say it here.
Below are edited excerpts from interviews with four intriguing behind-the-scenes people in reality TV. They probably could sit in the same room and enjoy watching the three best documentary films of 2010, then go out for dinner and talk brilliantly about them while Roger Ebert sits in the background, typing. (Quick somebody pitch that show!)
Ken Burns is Ken Burns, filmmaking legend and reality hater.
Lauren Zalaznick used to run Bravo. Now she oversees Bravo, Oxygen, iVillage and some other stuff for Comcast. She was the woman who decided to save a pilot about life behind the gates that was in development hell; while she was at it, she threw a little seed money at finding housewives in some other places besides Orange County.
Joe Berlinger does both documentaries and reality TV. Hes the director of that amazing Metallica film, but also Crude, an expose of the oil industry. He produces Iconoclasts for the Sundance Channel.
Jon Kroll is a writer, director and producer. His best known reality show was Amish in the City, which someday I hope CBS will finally release on Netflix and DVD. Jon is supervising the newest series by local producer Sharon Liese, Hookers: Saved on the Strip, which starts this week on Investigation Discovery.
Ken Burns: The nomenclature is whats infuriating to me. This is not reality. Nobody proposes or dates or checks people out in front of millions of people. The notion that this is reality is beyond the pale. What it does is just become a vehicle for the same shallow consumerist mentality that is driving our country into the dirt.
There is an aspect of voyeurism that is interesting, but what weve done and its the definition of decadence each generation of reality shows has to up the ante. So now were watching the Kardashians get bikini waxes with the appropriately fuzzed-out areas. What does this say to our children when were falling behind in math and science?
Now, Im not looking for everything on television to be homework. God forbid. In fact Ive tried to take what has traditionally been homework, history, and make it entertaining. The word history is mostly made up of the word story. The same laws apply to me as apply to the people who make the Kardashians, in how we structure and present stories.
What I reject is the idea that this has any intrinsic value whatsoever other than voyeurism. One of the degrees of hell of this decadence is narcissism: What I feel in this moment is more important than anything else on Earth, everything else be damned other people close to me, people far away from me, the plight of people around the world that were bound to whether we know it or not.
No documentarys objective. To pervert Jean-Luc Godards axiom, its not only truth 24 times a second its lying 24 times a second. But having said that, what are we in the service of in these shows? Are we wanting to illuminate the plight of migrant workers in California, as Harvest of Shame did? Or do you wish to know the bust size of Khloe Kardashian? Do you need to watch another year of one pretty thing trying to choose among a bunch of other pretty things, becoming excuses to elevate people to stature that they dont deserve?
This is a world where were involved in two wars. the greatest recession since the Great Depression and a country polarized by race, by geography, by politics....and yet, this is what animates our lives. And things are much more serious.
Lauren Zalaznick (after I read some of the Burns quote back to her): I dunno. Some people could say, Who need 20 hours of baseball in a documentary, Ken? Huh? And part two? I dont know. Who needs another apple pie recipe? They keep publishing cookbooks and they keep getting reviewed.
So Id be careful of saying too much is enough. Brilliant and beautiful things come out of the millionth-and-one entry in any category. And whos to say when too much is enough? Thats just my basic philosophy. Nobody says, Theres enough books. We should stop. Honestly, there are enough books.
But, you know, people who are born to make creative products really cant do anything else, so you must let them have that outlet.
I think there are similarities and vast differences between reality television and documentary filmmaking. The place where the Venn diagram crosses over is important if you think its important which is around veracity, the strange, wonderful, terrifying but always uncontrollable things happening in the nonfiction form. That is always the big overlap.
I think documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris, the Pennabakers, whoever, who get tapped for 30-second commercial making, feature films, whatever, you cant judge them for modifying their craft to do different outputs. They need to modify their product to make a ton of money they do it! They have a personal project theyve been working on for 20 years, they do that one. One empowers the other, and I think the economy of reality in television is empowering all kinds of media output, including the best scripted television that reality is sort of underwriting in a way.
I also wouldnt belittle the American television watching audience. Things are popular and instead of just dismissing them I dont like it! This is stupid! you (could) say, Huh, this is quite a phenomenon. I wonder what is intriguing or possibly important about this phenomenon that I am not understanding at first glance.
Dont diminish the audience of popularity and dont label it as a race to the bottom or lowest common denominator. Over the decades of television and the things called mass, that is definitively not true. It may be a race to the middle but the middle is broad and good and is a mirror of whats going on in peoples, you know, media psyches.
Joe Berlinger: To me, reality television is about some artificial concept where an event is staged. The material is unscripted as a result of something you created that was not organically created.
With Iconoclasts, every episode has an interesting pairing of these two creative people, so it kind of falls in the reality TV camp. Everyones looking for great characters. But we try to make Iconoclasts as documentary as possible. Theres a spectrum of what constitutes reality TV, but I dont play in the pure reality TV world.
Because all the networks are owned by a handful of corporations and everyones looking for advertising dollars, there are some topics they wont touch. When I was making Crude, everyone was afraid of offending Chevron. There are many opportunities to do branded content, which is advertiser-driven reality television. Im not knocking it because Iconoclasts is made possible by Grey Goose Vodka. Its been a wonderful partnership. Theyve been very wise about letting us do what we do. It is paid for by a brand, though, and they do get advertising advantages.
But as we push further and further into the realm of branded content, where the lines between advertising and journalism get blurred, I do have concerns about the veracity of the journalism. In general I think very controversial subject matter will not be tolerated.
You know, I benefit from the explosion of reality programming, nonfiction programming. The past five or six years Ive had a very busy career. And I manage every four or five years to put out a longform documentary. But those subjects are harder and harder to raise money for. When I did the original Paradise Lost, the budget was $1.1 million for two and a half hours. Paradise Lost 3 will be not as much money and not as much screentime.
When we shot Brothers Keeper (20 years ago), we had to shoot with recanned and short-ended film. Every 10 minutes of footage cost $300. Now we do everything on mini-HD tape. On the one hand, it was more expensive and more difficult to do Brothers Keeper. On the other hand, the democratication of filmmaking has lowered budgets and driven the business into more reality programming than ever before. There are certain networks where the budgets are so low I dont even know how to do business with them.
Jon Kroll: I teach at USC so I had to figure out ways of explaining why things work, and I have a theory about why reality took over.
Around the year 2000 was a time when shows had gotten so predictable. If you were watching a one-hour show it was because you were comforted knowing how it would turn out in the end. The fact that the hero can die is what makes reality special.
Thats why the 18-24 year olds were lost to reality the hero dies. They wanted to be surprised. They wanted to be shocked. And look what happened on the first season of Big Brother the sabateur who was gone before he could sabotage anyone!
I think reality made scripted television better. It forced it to.
The biggest change to reality TV in the past ten years is that we are not in the idea business anymore. You walk in and say, Ive got a great show about a dog trainer, nobody cares. You walk in with the Dog Whisperer, people care. We are in the asset business, whether its a personality or a format or a celebrity. You have to work under the assumption that your idea has been pitched before. I pitched a show with a bunch of skydivers and we had to research not only what had aired but what had been pitched.
Ive got this terrific show right now with three women who all work in the bikini and surf fashion business. Theyre all productive and far along in their careers and its great, but the tricky part is isolating and dramatizing the problems in their lives.
To me the exciting thing is to ask what if and have a television show to answer it. Amish in the City was the ultimate expression of that. Kid Nation was criticized but I thought it was a great example of that. Have you seen MTVs real breakfast club (If You Really Knew Me)? A really well-done and interesting show about breaking down barriers in high school.
Another way of articulating this is that you know youve got something special if your cast teaches you something about your show that you didnt know. On Amish in the City, we loaded our non-Amish people into the house and they thought it was going to be Real World. And then we sent the five Amish people in traditional garb to the front door. And we had no idea that they would NOT LET THEM IN, which is exactly what happened.
For more on my visits to "The Real Housewives of Orange County" and other shows that have defined the reality decade, visit my special report's home page.