Conspiracies, unsolved mysteries, horrible accidents, missing children, America's most wanted criminals and, now, real-life beatings, shootings and violent deaths. When it comes to
prime-time entertainment today, these are a few of our favorite things.
They are all part of something called reality TV, and it's the hottest programming trend on wheels. It's changing the way some of us see the world and our place in it. It also marks a watershed changing of the guard in terms of who plays gatekeeper over the more graphic TV images that will come to populate the waking thoughts and sleeping dreams of us and our children.
Reality shows have already come to rival the sitcom as TV's dominant form of programming. And more "reality" is on the way. The four networks CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC commissioned 15 reality pilots as possible regular series for next fall's schedules. With some of them getting their tryout now, it seems as if there is a new reality show popping up every week.
This week brought us "Sightings," which aired Friday on Fox, and NBC's "Against All Odds," with Lindsay Wagner as host, which premieres at 7 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2). "Sightings" features what Fox calls "real-life parareality," such as near-death experiences and UFO sightings. Henry Winkler, of "Happy Days" fame, produces it. "Against All Odds" presents real-life stories of courage and ingenuity. It is produced by John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer, whose "Unsolved Mysteries" launched the fleet of reality programs arriving on our TV screens.
The biggest hit of the new series so far has been NBC's "I Witness Video," which takes shock TV to a new level with amateur videos showing real-life murders and beatings.
For those who missed it, the first broadcast in February featured graphic footage of a Texas lawman being shot to death by a drug smuggler, another drug smuggler being shot to death by a Texas lawman and an armed robber being riddled with bullets by Denver police officers. The show finished 15th among 86 shows the week it aired, tying with "Cheers." Last week, the second broadcast of "I Witness Video," which featured a gay man being savagely beaten by his neighbors, finished fourth among all shows in prime time. In part because of those ratings, the word in Hollywood is that "I Witness Video" will be on NBC's fall schedule when it is announced next month.
The ratings look good
Almost all the reality shows are getting good ratings. "Unsolved Mysteries," with Robert Stack, is the 11th highest rated show in all of prime time. "Rescue 911," with William Shatner on CBS, has become a top 20 hit that wins its time period hands down. Shows about real cops "Cops" (Fox), "American Detective" (ABC), "Top Cops" (CBS) and "FBI: The Untold Story" (ABC) are being watched by more people than watch dramas about fictional cops, like "In the Heat of the Night" or "The Commish."
In fact, the success of reality shows is the main reason that so few police dramas or any kind of dramas are being made these days.
An hourlong drama, like "In the Heat of the Night," costs about $1.5 million an episode to make. An hourlong reality show, like "Unsolved Mysteries," can be made for 25 to 40 percent of that, Cosgrove said in an interview last week.
If you're the president of NBC Entertainment, which show are you going to buy, the one that costs $375,000 to make and finishes 11th in overall ratings or the one that costs $1.5 million to make and finishes 40th? This cost effectiveness is the main reason network schedules are crammed with reality shows and are going to get more crammed yet, while quality dramas, like "thirtysomething" and "China Beach," are gone never to return.
But the effects of reality TV go way beyond merely spelling the end of quality dramas.
Cosgrove said the big difference between reality TV in the past and what we are seeing today is that "reality" is no longer the exclusive domain of network news divisions. It's now the domain of independent producers like him. And they have very different ideas of reality.
"In the past, the reality shows were the exclusive territory of the network news divisions And they did White Papers and investigations and stories about royalty and the Kennedys," Cosgrove said. "But the economics of the business with all three networks losing audience and the success of shows like 'Unsolved Mysteries' have opened the door for independent producers to tell true stories about ordinary people who viewers can relate to There's always been a thirst for true stories, but suddenly that thirst is being met."
In the public's interest?
The notion of meeting a public thirst was echoed in recent interviews with other producers of reality shows most notably Terry Landau, the executive producer of "I Witness Video." It sounds nice. And it casts the independent producers as populists who create shows that truly interest viewers, while painting the network news executives as elitists who bored the pants off the public with their shows.
But I have also heard tabloid publishers use the same public thirst argument for printing pictures of topless women with the day's winning lottery numbers plastered across their breasts. They say they are merely giving the public what it wants, not trying to play God and decide what the public needs.
Top network brass, like CBS Group president Howard Stringer, say they have opened the door to independent producers, but that doesn't mean they have pushed the news division or its standards aside. They say they have simply added new voices that viewers seem interested in hearing with the reality producers and their programs.
And what has this new populism of reality program brought us? Virtually every reality show on the air is in one way or another about crime or danger from America's most wanted criminals and the FBI's untold stories to "Rescue 911" and "Against All Odds." With so many shows on the air and each bearing the imprimatur of real-life, the overwhelming message of prime-time TV for many viewers has become: The world is a hopelessly frightening and dangerous place.
In fact, I would argue that the overload of TV shows about unsolved mysteries and untold stories plays a major role in creating a national climate ripe for the paranoid vision of Oliver Stone's "JFK," the Kennedy assassination as America's ultimate unsolved mystery in Stone's telling of it.
I also believe this change in gatekeepers from network news producers and executives, who at least had written guidelines and a mechanism for professional dialogue on what they would air, to folks like Landau, who seem to have no second thoughts about showing graphic images of beatings and murder, is a major factor in the out-of-control tabloid mentality that has thrown the mainstream electronic and print media into such confusion. The confusion ranges from how to cover rape trials in Florida to telling America that Arthur Ashe has AIDS.
Typical of the confusion is a series of reports WBAL-TV (Channel 11), the local CBS affiliate, ran during its late news last week. The station called it "Maryland's Most Wanted," playing off "America's Most Wanted." It featured Channel 11 cameras following members of the Baltimore Sheriff's Fugitive Squad as they rounded up suspects. The graphics, the soundtrack and the imagery were all borrowed directly from reality shows like "Cops."
In fact, two months ago, "Cops" actually did a show on rounding up fugitives in Baltimore. Is this what an affiliate's local newscast should be doing in the few minutes it has to try and cover all the news in a metropolitan area as complicated as ours imitating an entertainment show that aired two months ago on Fox Broadcasting? And Channel 11 is not alone by a long shot. The only major news organizations that appear to be resisting the worst influences of reality and tabloid TV are CNN and ABC News.
In reporting this piece last week, I talked to another producer of reality TV, another one of our new media gatekeepers, George Paige. He's the person responsible for "The JFK Conspiracy," a syndicated show that attempted to link the Kennedy assassination to Watergate and reveal the identity of "Deep Throat," an unnamed source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Watergate.
"Is Deep Throat still alive?" I asked Paige in an interview before the live show aired.
"Yes, he's alive," Paige said.
"What was his response when you asked him if he was Deep Throat?"
"We didn't talk to him," Paige said.
"He'd just deny it anyway."