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."
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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This post originally appeared at WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women and the Media , a project of Women In Media & News, the national women's media analysis, education and advocacy group. To bring Jennifer L. Pozner to speak to your campus or community group, or to send WIMN blog tips, email info [at] wimnonline [dot] org. To subscribe to WIMN's free media alert list, see the Action Center at http://www.wimnonline.org/action/.