For five years, John Langley tried and failed to sell a cinema verite-style TV series tracking police officers on patrol. Then came the 1988 Hollywood writers strike.
“That’s when Fox bought ‘Cops,’ because a series with no narrator, no host, no script, no re-enactments sounded very good to them at the time,” recalled Langley, who just marked the show’s 700th episode.
The nearly five-month ’88 Writers Guild of America walkout that started in March didn’t unleash a flood of reality, because filming on sitcoms and dramas had largely wrapped and because alternative shows had yet to become a trend.
But the current WGA strike fell smack during production as well as the Age of Reality, putting the brakes on scripted shows and giving networks a quick fix for schedule holes. It remains to be seen how viewers — or the reality genre itself — will withstand the onslaught.
Networks have readied a slate of nearly 40 shows that are stacked up like jetliners over Christmas Eve runways awaiting the go-ahead to land.
Given reality’s popularity, many would have aired strike or not, including Fox’s blockbuster “American Idol,” returning in January, and the next edition of ABC’s hit “Dancing With the Stars.” And how could CW say no to the “Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious” sequel or NBC rebuff “Celebrity Apprentice”?
But there’s so much more in store, including ABC’s “Dancing” spin-off, “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann” (Jan. 7) and game show “Duel” (Dec. 17), and Fox’s social experiment “When Women Rule the World” (March 3).
Other new shows are hovering, including Fox’s “The Moment of Truth”; ABC’s “Here Come the Newlyweds”; CBS’ “Million Dollar Password” with Regis Philbin; NBC’s comedy game show “Amne$ia” with Dennis Miller, and CW’s “Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants.”
That reality TV is being used as a bandage to try to stop the networks from bleeding viewers is a sharp irony for the union: It has been attempting to organize the producers and editors it argues actually “write” reality shows operating outside the WGA contract.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the studios, declined to comment Tuesday.
Glimmer of hope
With the guild and studios resuming negotiations Monday for the first time since the strike began, there was a glimmer of hope that the contract dispute, which centers on pay for digital distribution, might be resolved. That would allow production to resume on scripted shows, with some of the reality stockpile going unused, at least for now.
But even a deal that comes sooner rather than later would result in a partly truncated season for dramas and comedies, most of which will soon burn through their completed episodes.
“I don’t know how they would catch up with production” if an agreement came beyond January, said analyst Billie Gold of the ad-buying firm Carat USA.
That means reality programs could end up the hallmark of 2007-08 season, providing an unprecedented bonanza for those who create it.
According to producer Mark Cronin (“Flavor of Love,” “The Surreal Life”), networks recognizing they must “protect themselves and fill their airspace” have ratcheted up demand for reality shows and pushed his company’s pace from “50 mph to 70 mph.”
While reality buffs may feel they’re in heaven, it’s a hellish scenario for admirers of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “30 Rock” and other scripted shows.
“I don’t feel like we have to destroy-and-conquer scripted television. It’s not like that,” he said. “These are our friends and colleagues out there. I know people in the scripted world. I enjoy scripted shows.”
He also is wary of ultimately alienating viewers.
“You could imagine a future that has so much reality that the nation clamors for scripted content because it seems so fresh and new after all the reality content they’ve seen,” he said.
Marc Berman, analyst for Media Week Online, notes that reality has been part of broadcast TV since the start — “Candid Camera” was born in 1948. “The Real World” got the new-wave party going in 1992, with the genre exploding in 2000 when ABC launched (and then overdosed on) “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and CBS struck “Survivor” gold.
Alternative TV is more entrenched than ever.
“We opened the fall season with the most nonscripted programming ever seen in the history of television,” Berman said. It’s cheaper to produce and “a lot of it works, so why not do it?”
But “if the strike continues with no end in sight, and there’s more and more reality, viewers will get fed up with it,” he predicted.
Langley, who also produces the new series “Jail” for MyNetworkTV, already is disheartened. He argues that while “Cops” was a groundbreaker that brought an arthouse-style documentary program to network TV, most reality shows are simply dressed-up contests.
“It’s all game shows,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘Survivor’ or ‘The Biggest Loser’ or ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘Amazing Race.”’
And more is not better, according to Langley.
“You’re going to get a lot of bad reality shows as a consequence of the strike. ... It encourages all kinds of dilution of my franchise,” he said.