Monday, May 9, 2016

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #13: INTRO TO REALITY PROGRAMMING.

Alright, morning class,

Hope you enjoyed last class, I know it' sbeen awhle but it was game shows, so it should've been fun at least. We didn't talk about too many of the really atrocious ones, did we? No, I didn't think so. I did promise you guys something though, didn't I? (Sigh) Well, I wasn't looking forward to this, but here we go, just-eh, watch as much of the video as you can:



For those of you who are not familiar with this, this is "Queen for a Day". If you can finish watching this, and no, I never have, although I trrry-ied, but ugh. Anyway, the show is, there's three women, housewives, usually, each of whom are going through some difficult times, and they tell about horrible their lives are. And then, after three of them, the audience, through their applause votes, for which one deserves to be, "Queen for a Day", and they win, prizes, usually not exactly what would help them, but they win some prizes. The others they got a few things, but not much. (Sigh) This show, not counting radio, which ran longer, ran on television for ten years! Yeah. Thankfully, only a few episodes survive, and it's unfortunately, not the worst thing game shows produced in that era, (If you ever want to know about that, look up Game Show Garbage's piece on "Strike It Rich") but I bring it up, while this barely counts as an actual "game show", it's a good start to start looking at what we would now call reality television.

Now, let's get a couple of the basics of reality out of the way, Reality television, in some manner, has been around since the beginning of television. Hell, game shows, for some people because, it's basically, real people competing for a prize, at some little game. (Eye roll) I think that's a stretch, but the idea of, basically watching non-celebrities, or the everyday folk on television, that's not too new. That's been around, since, whoever the hell came up with the first Man on the Street interview. although I think, probably the first big show that we would now consider "reality" is "Candid Camera", which is the first hidden camera shows, like "Bloopers and Practical Jokes" or "Girls Behaving Badly" or "Punk'd", or, half of everything on Youtube now it seems. They were, a little more sophisticated about it, It wasn't always great television, but there were some pretty elaborate pranks, and there was talented behind the camera and on camera at times working on them.

Now, this is only, one form of reality television. There's a lot. A loooooooooo-ooootttt of them. There's three categories at the Primetime Emmys, Structured, Unstructured and Competition, and that's not including the word I'm gonna use, "Documentary programming". Essentially it's another word for documentary and whether that's documenting the everyday trials and tribulations of a typical American family or, recording what happens when, somebody confronts their cheating lover while they're with the person(s) they're cheating on them with. Yeah, sorry to bring that up, but yeah, "Cheaters" still exists. I'm sorry.

Okay, back to the early begins of moving pictures, most of what was filmed were Actualities, just recordings of events. Maybe most famously, the Lumiere Brothers "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat". which was, nothing more than a train, arriving at a station. And of course, famously the audience, ducked, when the train arrived. Well, that's because of where the put the camera, and this is the big point I want to make about documentaries in general as well as reality television as a whole, at that is, there is no such thing as an unbias perspective, especially if there's a camera. Imagine that short if the camera, on the other side and instead of the train arriving towards us, we see the train arriving, but from behind; it would have a completely different effect, and audience would probably not be ducking away from a train that they clearly see is going down the track, away from them. Now, reality TV, in all forms is essentially the same concept, whether it's a competition show or a travel documentary or whatever, it's basically how it's presented and how it's portrayed. There's a reason why, Anthony Bourdain's travels seem far more hilarious and interesting and delicious then say Burt Wolf's shows. They're traveling, they're showing you all they see, all the sights, and whatnot, but, you know, one's a travelogue and perfectly fine and the other's well, feels like a bacchanal journey with, at times, Satan leading the way down the river Styx and it's just way the hell more fun.

Now, we're not getting into quality analysis just yet, but that's one of the things that's really what distinguishes the genre, it's really as much as about perspective as any other genre; how to tell the story as opposed to telling the story. And yes, even though this is reality, like most every other genre, it's all about storytelling, the only real difference is that, you're not writing the story out ahead of time, or at least not, writing the entire, story, out ahead of time.

Okay, so I think most of you have some idea about competition reality, so we'll get this out of the way early, and this started, again with game shows, also talent shows, everything from, back when the entire Miss America pageant was a full day affair and aired on TV, yes that happened, to "Star Search" to "American Idol", to whatever country's "Got Talent", this year. This is the easy type of a reality series to analyze, it's like any other sporting event really. There's a goal to achieve, they have to do, A, B, C, D, to achieve it, and they have to compete against everybody else trying to do A, B, C, and D, so you gotta do it better than them, the drama, basically writes itself to some extent, and if you can edit it well, you can really get a great reality competition show out of it. Editing is the key to all reality of course, Finding the stories out of, what essentially is raw footage, whether it's pure cinema verite or whether it's talking heads or just recordings of performances or other documentary footage, or live footage and placing it into a program, but it's basically the simplest storylines, and that's basically why all those shows on some level work. There's good and bad ones obviously, but the natural drama is pretty clear, and therefore, at least something that makes us continue to watch week after week. And like other sports, when you get to playoff time, you got to win or go home, and if there's one or more that you prefer over others..... like, I said, it's basically sports, instead of basketball or something however, it's cooking, or singing or fashion design, whatever.

The main thing with these shows, especially it isn't simply a live performance kind of show, is the sociological experiment with them. This can also apply to both structured and unstructured reality shows as well, "The Real World" comes to mind immediately, but this other aspect of getting a bunch of different people from different backgrounds together in the same space, and see what happens, Of course, this isn't new either, anything that's remotely cinema verite in its technique, (For those who don't know, "Cinema Verite"  which literally translated means "Direct Cinema", um, it's more complex than I'm gonna describe here, but basically it's a technique of documentary filmmaking where, you just film, and record life, without voiceover or much editing, just, basically be a fly on the wall, Basically, when I'm using it here, it's that practice of setting up a situation, whatever it is, and letting the camera rolls and record whatever happens. Calling any reality show, "Cinema Verite" is stretching it, outside of maybe "An American Family" but still the main technique of just shooting and shooting until the story comes up or reveals itself in the editing rooms, that's the aspects of Cinema Verite I'm referring to) already has some aspect of a sociological experiment involved, just by having a camera present, 'cause that aspect alone is apart of the experiment, if you about the Heisenberg Principle,..., the fact that a camera is recording the event itself changing the event, or whatever, but this is particularly critical for most reality shows. They're already documenting, whatever it is, from an audition to a board meeting or whatever, no matter how stage or eh, even scripted in the worst of reality sows anyway, the scene is, the scene itself, is actually happening and that's the major key to reality.

One more thing to get out of the way, we'll discuss this more next class, but staging, scripting, pre-planning certain events, that's not the main qualifier of a quality reality show. Of course certain things have to be pre-planned or configured or whatever-, we'll get into this, yes, staging is not inherently wrong with reality.

Anyway, where was I? Okay, with "structured reality", basically what that means is that, there's still, well a structure to a reality show, meaning that, while nothing is scripted per se, or whatever, there's definitely a pattern and structure to the series. Let's go back to "Candid Camera" for instance, there's gonna be a set up or two,  and then a somebody will be the "victim" of the prank, and we're gonna see it play out, and maybe repeat two or three times. That's pretty much a definition of a structured reality show. Take real people, and they're in a situation, usually not a grand one, 'cause that would be ridiculous (Well, that would be a competition show of some kind) but this could define anything from "Antiques Roadshow" to "Wife Swap". Just because there's a natural formula to the contrivance, to the social experiment, doesn't mean it's not reality; as much as we may like to deny it, people are fairly predictable and we can be pretty certain how people will react in situations, reasonably at least. Actually, let's take "Wife Swap", I know not a great show, but what's the basic premise, taking somebody out of their element, just long enough to get used to the new situation. There's five stages of grief, well the same stages actually kinda apply to anything, and recording that, and even experiencing or at least watching people experience that, is and can be entertaining. It's not that they're going through the event, it's how these regular people go through it. Or go through it this time, if we're watching regular characters regular people, say that three times fast,

That's the thing, it works the other way around a bit. You find interesting, people, and you see what they're lives are like, and that's true of structured reality, "Pawn Stars" or "Storage Wars" comes to mind, which is basically a spin off of "Antiques Roadshow", and you're basically watching them at their job and work, and that's interesting enough sometimes, so it can happen in structured reality but it's definitely more associated with unstructured reality, which is more closer to cinema verite, than any other form of reality television. Now, that's not to say that, there isn't pre-planned segments or whatever, to these shows, but basically it's not the same structure every time. Essentially, it's similar to watching a soap opera narrative, or a general continuous narrative, only in real life. Pulling whatever events an stories those characters are or do go through, through the editing. Eh, a great combination of this would be something like "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List", especially since that show in particular is so inside Hollywood, that it's practically satirizing the reality genre, but yeah, clearly, if there's something going on that seems like a nice event for television, they record it, or if they find an event going on that seems like something, in this case Kathy Griffin, but really, anybody interesting would do, they try to push these real people into those worlds somehow and then record and see what happens.

That's the big part, of most of reality television, it's basically, "Record and see what happens," and that's the key thing. Before and after that, or whether A. or B. is pre-arranged or whatnot, that's not particularly relevant 'cause at the end, it's still recording the actual reactions and behaviors of the ones involved, so there for, "reality". Even if that reality, was created by plopping down a bunch of Americans on a deserted island.

Alright, Homework: This is gonna be a tricky one, but it shouldn't be too difficult. I want you guys two reality shows you like, (Or two reality shows) one structured, one unstructured, no competition shows, no straight-up documentary series, no informational series, (We'll talk more about documentary and informational series later)  first identify which one is which, 'cause sometimes it's tricky, so you may want to look it up or double-check, but most of the time it'll be easy to tell, and I want to think about how you can take that structured reality series, and turn it into an unstructured series, and vice versa with the other, turn that unstructured series into a structured series. And don't think this is too weird, I can think of more than a few television series that have done that, usually in the form of a spin-off, but it's certainly possible. It's not unusual at all and not that difficult, and figure out, how would you do that, how would that show be different, be similar, what would the focus be on, 'cause that's the big thing, focused reality, etc. But turn, I don't know "Flipping Out" or Jersey Shore" or "Wahlburgers" or whatever into a structured reality show, and turn, "Antiques Roadshow" or "Shark Tank" or "Mythbusters" or whatever structured reality show into an unstructured show, and how would they work, etc. And next, let's be generous and say, "week", or whenever we have the next class, (Sorry, it's been so long between them, didn't mean that to happen) and then we'll dive a little more into documentary and informational reality shows, although I don't know how much we can say about informational shows other than to just distinguish them from everything and then we'll talk, quality analysis of reality shows, that's gonna a good one, or as Paris Hilton might say, "That's hot". There aren't really a lot of good quotes from reality shows out there. "Smile, you're on Candid Camera"? I don't know what I'm talking about, here's an episode "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List", 'cause I better end this with something good after making you sit through "Queen for a Day". Class dismissed.



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