October 31, 2004

What 'Reality' TV Means to Documentarians: 'You're Fired!'

OK, I admit it. I watched The Apprentice. I TiVo'd The Simple Life. I even tuned in to The Resturaunt. And that's not all.

 I've become a fan of A&E's Airport. I watched TLC's Trading Spaces. And I've been known to tune into Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

And my non-filmmaker friends make polite small talk at parties about how reality TV is good for me and my fellow documentary filmmakers. And you can't blame them for assuming that, after all, most of these shows look like the work that I do—real people, stories that seem to unfold in front of the camera  and dramatic story arcs that seem to be driven more by events than scripts or a director's vision.

So what's the problem? After all, it's entertainment. Who's it hurting?

Well, at first glance, it's all harmless fun and games.

But what's leaking into the consciousness of the viewing public is a kind of low-cost, dramatic programming that looks and feels like vérité documentary, but one peak under the hood tells a very different story.

That great moment in The Apprentice, where the loser hails a cab after being "sent to the street"? Well, the show's producers have revealed that the drive-away scene is shot a week before the actual showdown! It's a fake. I'm broken-hearted. Could it be that Omarosa wasn't mean and crazy after all? Could it be that Donald Trump's off-the-cuff lines are...scripted?

If real is fake, then what is real? The money? The fights? The tears? Sure. But the plot, the twists, the turns, the bumps in the road and the staged battles are all the result of brilliant producing.

I'm not against reality TV. I'm against calling it reality. When we pick up "all natural" yogurt, there are rules about that phrase. When we get "unleaded gas," there's no lead in it. But "reality" is fake. And the fact that we know it doesn't solve anything; in fact, it's creating an environment for truth-tellers that will have significantly negative effects on our work as truth-tellers.

As the audience gets more and more used to so-called "reality" characters being young and attractive, how do we make documentaries about real people? Those of us who have made documentaries for networks know that they now ask for "casting," which includes character descriptions. While this seems harmless, it means that all the doctors in a documentary about an emergency room are now sexy and young, as opposed to tired, older and frustrated. Good drama, but we're eating away at our truth-telling franchise.

Then there is the issue of making something happen. For a film like Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock took the risk that something would happen while he was making his movie. What if he hadn't gained weight? What if he hadn't gotten sick? He would have made an honest movie about a not-so-interesting story. That's the risk of making a documentary—going out in search of truth, without the certainty that something interesting will result. Sometimes the truth is boring.

But "reality" programs change the rules. Something has to happen in order for the network or funder to be sure that the story has a beginning, middle and end. In shows like Survivor or The Apprentice, this is easy: There's a winner, and therefore a bunch of losers. But what about when you're making a film about a struggling rock band, or a homeless shelter? As audiences begin to expect all documentaries to end with a bang, it may be we can't compete.

The pressure to make documentaries look more like reality shows is real—and growing. Just three years ago there were strands of issue-oriented docs on many major cable networks. But many of those strands have been replaced by experiential or game reality shows. Among the exceptions is Discovery Times Channel, which is doing some very strong new work. The message is, Make programs that have either feel-good endings or trivial conflicts. The number of documentaries about social issues has actually decreased over the past five years, even as the theatrical market has come to life.

Reality television isn't real. It isn't documentary. And anyone who's been asked to make a "reality" show—staging scenes, booking characters, scripting scenes and planning a dramatic arc—knows how far apart these two genre are. We need to draw a line. Call a spade a spade. These shows are "Amateur Fiction"—and plenty of them are entertaining.

But mean, sexy or extreme can't be the watchword for documentaries, not when the world is so full of complex issues and important and engaging stories.

 

Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at steve.rosenbaum@CameraPlanet.com.

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