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Like It or Not, Reality is Here to Stay

By Sarah Jo Marks

Contestants from Bertram Van Munster's The Amazing Race

John Grierson was the first commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada and is largely credited with coining the term "documentary," upon reviewing Robert Flaherty's Moana. He would later define documentary as "the creative interpretation of reality," with its purpose being "to exploit the powers of natural observation, to build a picture of reality, to bring the cinema to its destiny as a social commentator, inspirator and art."

Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English defines "reality television" as "a genre of television programming in which 'real life' people are followed in a situation, game, etc." Reality TV has, especially in the past five years in the US, thrived as a genre, although one can arguably pinpoint the classic 1973 PBS series An American Family (Alan and Susan Raymond, directors; Craig Gilbert, producer) and, in the 1980s and 1990s, the launches of the Fox series COPS (John Langley, executive producer) and the MTV series The Real World (Mary-Ellis Bunim, Jonathan Murray, prods.) as antecedents. Today, reality TV is an ever-metastasizing genre, with subgenres ranging from high-brow verite series to low-brow game show knock-offs. Some of the leading lights in the reality spectrum shared with Documentary their insights about how this genre has evolved and where it's going.

In 2001, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences created a new reality show category--Outstanding Non-Fiction Program (Reality), now Outstanding Reality Program. The first batch of nominees included American High, Taxicab Confessions, The Awful Truth with Michael Moore, The E! True Hollywood Story and Trauma: Life in the ER. Three years later, the academy added another category, Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. Clearly, the genre is not going away.

R.J. Cutler, director and executive producer of American High, monitored the dramatic growth of reality TV from the start. "When I started doing reality television there wasn't really any such thing [in the US]," he reflects. "Based on my experiences producing and directing feature docs, I realized that there's a massive amount of time and energy that goes into filming these large-scale projects, and you mostly end up carving away useful material that you can't fit into your 90-minute film. It occurred to me very early on that there was a potential model for telling nonfiction stories that more closely emulated primetime drama series as opposed to feature films.

"I thought maybe you could take the principles [of cinma verite] and apply them to prime time television--to do a TV series that was like Beverly Hills 90210 but had real people in it," Cutler continues. "That was really the basic germ of the idea, which I shopped around in the winter of 1999 and ended up selling to 20th Century Fox and then to Fox Broadcasting, where we did a 13-episode order."

American High, which Fox dropped after two episodes and which PBS later picked up in its entirety, won the first Emmy Award in the reality category. The next year brought a couple more shows to the forefront, including Frontier House (Nicolas Brown, Maro Chermayeff, dirs./prods.; Alex Graham, Beth Hoppe, exec. prods.; Simon Shaw, series prod.). The newest installment in the House series is Texas Ranch House (Jody Sheff, Leanne Klein, Diane Best, exec. prods.), which is scheduled to premiere on PBS in April 2006. Series Producer Luis Barreto used his background in reality TV, having worked on The Real World, Road Rules, Fear Factor and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, to get the results he wanted from the new show.

"Working for Bunim/Murray, I learned a lot about the actual storytelling element and the interaction between participant or cast member and producer," Barreto explains. "What was great about that was that it gave me an insight to reality that is a little different. Reality producers today are out to manufacture reality--whatever their version of reality is--whereas at Bunim/Murray it was all about setting up a particular scenario and not messing with it. Those shows look and feel fresh."

Texas Ranch House follows the daily lives of more than a dozen participants as they experience the life of 19th century ranch hands. "One of the things that I learned is that you can't set somebody up," Barreto notes. "It's all about how you keep participants happy and engaged and in a place where they're feeling empowered. It was their ranch, their experience. They would say, 'What should we do here?' And I spent a lot of time telling them, 'I don't know what you should do here. You guys figure it out and let me know what you decide.'"

"I think the Texas Ranch House experience was and is going to be a defining element for me," Baretto maintains. "Career wise, it's something that's helped to balance out the crap I've done. I could walk away from TV today knowing that the last thing I did was really, really great."

The 2003, 2004 and 2005 Emmys for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program all went to The Amazing Race, in which teams of couples race around the world, contending with a series of mental and physical hurdles. Bertram van Munster, co-creator and executive producer (with his wife and partner, Elise Doganieri, along with Jerry Bruckheimer), says he brings his entire life experiencea tenure as producer on Fox Broadcasting's long-running prime-time series, Cops; an apprenticeship as a cameraman for Fox Movietone News in Holland; and a role in creating and executive producing both the hit syndicated adventure series from Paramount Domestic Television, Wild Things, and the reality series Profiles from the Front Line for ABCto create a fresh, new show each season. The key, he says, is the concept, which, "is very good to begin with...The casting is very important," he adds. "If you keep massaging these two elements you'll get always new and original results." The show is ambitious and it takes over 2,000 people around the world to get through a season. Plus, there are major logistical challenges but, according to van Munster, "as long as the audience likes us and it doesn't get too expensive we can keep doing it." The eighth season, The Amazing Race: Family Edition, is airing now on CBS. The ninth season is in production.

Paul Dowling trained in music at The Julliard School. But he ended up creating, executive-producing and writing one of the most popular true-crime shows of all time, Forensic Files, which airs on Court TV. The show uses real crimes and is almost completely constructed with reenactments. "I was at Julliard when John Houseman was there as head of the drama department, and he had just won the Academy Award for The Paper Chase," Dowling recalls. "I had a particular interest in drama, although I was a music major. I learned quite a bit about staging and various theatrical things. I also learned what role music plays or can play in a production in film or in television. I certainly learned about performance and I learned a lot about craft, which was extremely important."

But Dowling doesn't consider Forensic Files a reality TV program. "I consider ours to be true murder, true crime, murder mystery," he explains. "It's told more like Quincy and less like the traditional documentary. Here's the murder; look at the clues and try to figure it out. It's really a different kind of storytelling. It is not manufactured storytelling in any sense."

Reality television is a broad statement that encompasses many different kinds of shows. According to Cutler, there are "competition shows, docu-soaps, celebrity programs, comedy reality shows, talent reality shows, gross reality shows, high quality reality shows. There's a very broad set of sub-genres that all fit under this character. Where is it going? In the same direction that it's been going in the last five years; it's just another viable genre of television.

"You could not do 30 Days or American High or The Residents or Bound for Glory in primetime six years ago," Cutler maintains. "There wasn't really a place for this until the success of Survivor. That success really opened up a lot of doors in programming. A lot of documentary filmmakers have found a way to continue doing their feature documentaries and also do this kind of programming. You can do really terrific documentary work on television now. There's this ripple effect across the documentary universe that is entirely positive."

"I think you have to look back to look forward," Barreto elaborates. "My nieces and nephews grew up watching Road Rules and The Real World. They're used to seeing all this stuff. Where it's gonna go is where the market drives it. I think we're just starting to scratch the surface. I don't think we're anywhere near exhausting the genre or thinking that it's going to go away."

"The audience has become more sophisticated," says Ed Hersh, senior vice president, documentaries and specials at Court TV. "Think about Anna Nicole [Smith] or The Osbournes. The novelty of The Osbournes sort of wore off after a while. You were there, you saw what happened and they sort of ran out of story. The programs that have stories built into them, like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition--that's a story. Somebody is in need, they go in, a process happens, there's an ending, there's hugging and learning and it tells a story.

"Where this is evolving is that it's not just enough to be in the room, and it's not just enough to have an interesting character," Hersh continues. "It's a combination of character and story. And those are the ones that seem to have staying power. It's great to connect with somebody."


Sarah Jo Marks is a producer's rep and consultant. Check out her website at