Kinder, Gentler Reality

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

While the broadcast networks continue searching for the next great twist on reality, cable networks are launching a second generation of reality programming that expands the genre to include more lifestyle-based shows.
At the Television Critics Association Cable Press Tour in Los Angeles last week, the networks presented a crop of programming-such as Bravo’s “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy,” National Geographic Channel’s “Worlds Apart” and ABC Family Channel’s “Switched”-that places ordinary people in situations where cooperation and personal growth are valued over competition and confrontation.
But programming executives said these shows will not replace the likes of “Survivor” and “American Idol” anytime soon.
“I don’t think the new shows are necessarily a shift in programming, but more a desire to create more original reality programming,” said Mark Sonnenberg, head of entertainment at E! Networks. “There’s always going to be reality shows like `Survivor’ and `Amazing Race.’ Those things are going to be `reality’ for a while.”
Robin Schwartz, VP of programming for ABC Family Channel, agreed.
“I think there’s room for all of it,” she said. “I think this is more of a reality show expansion.”
Producers say the expansion comes from a desire to develop reality programs with a more positive tone than the bug-eating and backstabbing that typify prime-time broadcast shows.
“That’s been our mantra from the beginning-that reality shows don’t have to be driven by contests, or by people out to get one another,” said “Queer Eye” co-creator and co-executive producer David Metzler. “You can create a reality format that has a sweetness to it, where you give your protagonists opportunities to succeed rather than putting up obstacles for them to fail.”
What the new shows might lack in screaming matches, however, they make up for in learning opportunities for viewers. All the shows have an underlying education component-be it learning about fashion (“Queer Eye,” “Style Court”), other cultures (“Switched,” “Worlds Apart”) or design (“Merge,” “Mix It Up”).
“There’s a real desire to learn something while watching television. People get tired of contests for contests’ sake,” said Jaime Hellman, a documentary filmmaker who’s currently developing a lifestyle-based reality-TV project. “Viewers want to be caught up in the drama, but want to learn something at the same time and not just feel like they wasted an hour.”
Mr. Hellman added that the newer concepts also tend to be slightly less contrived and more in the vein of traditional documentaries than are most popular reality programs.
While conceding that the less manipulative new shows contain a service component, Mr. Sonnenberg noted that drama is still every programmer’s priority.
“We’re trying to make our information delivered incrementally. We’re not trying to tell you, say, how to dress,” he said. “I guarantee you a show that has an interesting story and compelling characters will do better than a how-to show every time.”