Guest Commentary: Touching TV is not just a game

Aug 27, 2001  •  Post A Comment

While the contestants on shows like “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” are going head-to-head for cash prizes, there is another televised battle taking place.
Though not quite in the spotlight or the subject of office water-cooler discussion, this contest pits reality prime-time programs against reality daytime programs. What we have is a standoff between the jeopardy found in the prime-time vehicles and the redemption factor that fuels most daytime reality-based shows.
Reality-oriented survival shows such as “Spy TV,” “Big Brother” and “Chains of Love” succeed when they subject the people involved to an ever-increasing amount of jeopardy in order to “win.” This is excellent once-a-week TV programming, but these types of shows would weaken considerably if they were stripped Monday through Friday. This sort of producermanipulated reality surely doesn’t work as an evergreen offering.
I believe that programmers seeking to tap into the much-sought-after women 18 to 49 demo on a daily basis need to go another route. The answer? Redemptive TV programming that creates an expectation that each episode in the strip will deliver a positive emotional payoff on a consistent basis to the viewer.
These programs build a loyal audience because of their positive redemptive experience that reinforces our universal cultural values. Such shows are also extremely evergreen, allowing programmers a tremendous amount of flexibility in the scheduling of highly rated repeat episodes and in the number of fresh episodes held as inventory when going into a sweeps period.
As developers and producers, our team at Banyan Productions has found that probably the best way to reach this demo is to offer nonaltered reality. The focus on the programming should be on the real emotional depths of events that happen to us all and that are life-changing moments-a birth, a wedding, a reunion, all those moments that define us as human beings.
Take our “A Wedding Story” on TLC, for example. Now you can think whatever you want of marriage as an institution, and we understand that today some marriages don’t last, but in that one moment and that one second people are exchanging vows on “A Wedding Story,” that love is pure. And it is real, and it is eternal, and it is forever, and it is what human beings have been doing for centuries-getting married. And when viewers watch it and understand that is what is really happening before their eyes and that those two people are committing themselves, that’s profound.
Now, you may ask: “What effect do you think cameras in the room have on the words and emotions of the participants in these essentially unscripted shows?” The couples in “A Baby Story” know there is a camera crew in the room, but when the actual birth process begins they’re not thinking, “Oh my God, are they getting my good side? They really aren’t. Should I scream louder? Should I cry harder? Do I look fat?”
In turn, based on e-mails and letters we continually receive, the viewers who tune in are equally moved by these kinds of profound real-life moments.
If you look back over the history of the medium, television has always found a place for good, unscripted human drama. Anyone who’s a Baby Boomer or older will recall “An American Family,” the series that profiled the exploits of the Loud family. The MTV generation has “Real World,” the well-produced, revolutionary program that deserves much of the credit for today’s reality revival. And of course, there is the multigenerational comedic series “Candid Camera,” which had a long run showing people reacting to life’s oddities.
How can real people stop being interesting? By the very nature of who we are and the circumstances in which we live there will always be drama, there will always be humor, there will always be conflict, there will always be something in us to marvel at. Within these moments and programs viewers will find redemption and happy endings. Along with the viewers, the networks also are enjoying this type of reality as it provides an advertiser-friendly environment.
Ray Murray is president of Philadelphia-headquartered Banyan Productions.