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Reality TV shows are unscripted — mostly

The idea of reality show writers is strange — but true. Though the strike doesn't impact most of these writers, some reality shows are feeling the effects.
/ Source: contributor

Wondering about how a certain reality show pulled something off? Have a question about a certain contestant?

Whether it's "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Apprentice," "Real World" or another show, . Andy Dehnart,'s Television Editor and creator of ,will try to answer them.

Before you send in your question, — you may be able to get your answer right away.

Q: How will the reality TV shows come together without writers? Are the reality writers not a part of the strike?— Katie

A: No. The Writers Guild of America began a campaign a few years ago to unionize story writers on reality shows, but has so far been unsuccessful. (A recent report in Variety, disputed by the WGA, suggested they'd given up their efforts.) Writers on "America's Next Top Model" went on strike, but were replaced by unionized editors.

The idea of writers on a reality show does seem strange. The whole point of reality television is that it's unscripted, finding its drama from real people interacting with each other, even if they're in artificial contexts. (Of course, some lame shows such as "The Simple Life" cheat and stage scenes.) Thus, reality shows don't have writers who write scripts or dialogue like the writers on sitcoms or dramas.

Instead, reality show writers, who are sometimes called story producers or story editors, are responsible for taking hundreds of hours of footage and distilling it into episodes with clear narratives. (They also do other work: they craft outlines, write dialogue for hosts, and create treatments and proposals for new series or seasons.)

Reality show writers decide which characters and story lines to follow each week, and which footage should be used to tell those stories. While they're not writing dialogue — or at least, they shouldn't be, although those voice-overs on some competition shows are suspicious — they do produce scripts. But those scripts take existing material from detailed logs created by those who watch every minute of raw footage.

There is at least one reality show directly impacted right now by the writers' strike: "Dancing With the Stars" had a WGA writer who produced the scripts for hosts Tom Bergeron and Samantha Harris. With the writers on strike, they're now ad-libbing their lines, according to reports.

Q: Is there a house rule against stealing an immunity idol from another “Survivor's” possession? — Richard B., Eureka, Calif.

A: Yes. Cast members cannot steal the hidden immunity idol from the person who found it.

Last season, a note attached to the buried, hidden idol said "the immunity idol cannot be stolen from you," and also explained that it was transferable: "You may give this immunity idol to someone else as long as you give it to them before you leave your beach for Tribal Council. You may not transfer possession of the immunity idol at Tribal Council."

That doesn't mean, however, that other contestants can't be devious and try to find out if one of their fellow competitors has the idol, as we've seen this season and in past seasons.

In multiple post-elimination interviews, "Survivor: China" cast member Jaime confirmed that she was not allowed to steal the idol when she discovered that a fellow cast member had not one but two of them. When she rifled through James' bag, she was told that she could not take things from his personal belongings. However, had he hidden the idol in, say, a tree, away from his belongings, anyone could have taken it.

Q: I really enjoy reality TV, but so much of it includes half-dressed women, and a lot of bleep bleep bleeping. How about some reality shows that the whole family can watch? Most of what I saw on the reality TV lineup was reality trash. We want to see more "Little People Big World" type of stuff, not "America's Next Top Model" or "Big Brother." How about giving the other half of America what THEY want to see? — Kathelene J., Milton-Freewater, Ore.

A: A lot of people probably feel the same way you do — just as a lot of people probably disagree that the shows you cite are trash.

The shows you mention are series America wants to see, at least judging by the ratings. "Big Brother" was consistently the most-watched series in its time slot, and often for the whole evening, this past summer. "America's Next Top Model" is a top performer for The CW. Other shows, from "Survivor" to "The Bachelor," also deliver in the ratings, even if they're not for everyone.

The big networks — ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, plus The CW and MyNetworkTV — have to appeal to wider audiences, so they craft shows that get attention, and "Big Brother" is a good example of that. Cable networks do the same, of course: VH1 has broadcast a string of hysterical yet horrifying series that feature D-list celebrities in absurd situations.

Depending upon your preferences, there are feel-good series on network TV, from ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to NBC's "The Biggest Loser." And cable networks offer a much more diverse array of unscripted programming, from the raw and dramatic ("Deadliest Catch") to the absurd and horrifying ("I Love New York").

The History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" and the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" chronicle the dramatic, real lives of fascinating people. TLC has, as you mentioned, "Little People, Big World," a docudrama that follows an ordinary family that happens to be partially comprised of little people. Bravo's competition series, with occasional exceptions ("Top Chef 2"), focus on the extraordinary skills of talented people.

Ultimately, networks are going to produce what people watch, but the good news is, people are drawn to all kinds of reality series, and if you just look around, you're certain to find shows that you and your family like and can watch together.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.