I’ve been called many things in my life, some with a germ of truth and some with a full-blown head cold. But my favorite occurred in 2003, when the late New York Post editor and MSNBC editor-in-chief, Jerry Nachman, welcomed me on his show as “the so-called father of reality TV.”
I riposted you can’t be responsible for all your children, but Jerry’s assertion had no more reality than the genre itself. He had come to that fanciful conclusion not due to any paternity test, but thanks to my background in the sort of non-narrated documentaries that avoid artificiality, particularly my association as an exec with a sequel being broadcast then, descended from the 1973 TV series ‘An American Family.’
Not that I was utterly lacking in degrees of separation from the reality TV genre. I attended school with the son, a class ahead of me, of Allen Funt, who in 1947 with radio series ‘Candid Microphone’ and the following year with ‘Candid Camera,’ laid the first rails of orchestrated but unscripted reality scenes. “When you least expect it, you’re elected, you’re the star today, smile… you’re on Candid Camera!” Decades later, the star of fourteen seasons of NBC’s ‘The Apprentice’ was elected President of the United States. The little genre that could.
Another milepost on the reality TV train was the result of a strike by television writers in 1988. In order to fill its airwaves with something that did not rely on picketing members of the Writers Guild of America, Fox TV took a chance on the series ‘Cops,’ which tagged along with real police as they ran down perps and knocked down doors. The series arguably derived from a documentary, ‘The Police Tapes,’ by the Raymonds, the same filmmakers who shot ‘An American Family.’ Three decades later, ‘Cops’ soldiers on, still chasing cops and robbers on TV.
In 1992, once again inspired by ‘An American Family,’ MTV premiered ‘The Real World,’ in which a motley crew of immature adults were thrown together in a house under the Orwellian eye of multiple cameras. Masterfully edited, it was TV Kabuki. For all its trumped-up shenanigans, the series could be credited with one of the rare plusses of reality TV: a 2008 NAACP report found that the only genre of television in which minorities were not under-represented was, in fact, reality TV.
Go figure. Cherry on top: a 2010 study by Brigham Young University revealed that reality TV contained “almost no physical violence,” contrasted with scripted blood and gore dripping from most other TV pixels.
Soon after the launch of the MTV series -- another one that lasted decades -- the real world gave us the O. J. Simpson murder trial, whose TV pilot, as it were, was a 90-minute freeway chase covered from choppers, riveting the nation.
Coincidentally or not, current reality TV star Kim Kardashian is the daughter of Simpson defense attorney Robert Kardashian. Maybe she caught the bug watching her dad’s colleague Johnnie Cochran utter the famous phrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The trial took the gloves off of TV news as reality eye candy.
At the same time, an aspiring daredevil reporter from New Zealand, Phil Keoghan, inordinately fond of swimming with the sharks, kept knocking on my door at The Travel Channel.
At that time, I didn’t have an appropriate TV vehicle for his clear talent. CBS did, however, with ‘The Amazing Race,’ a new competition subgenre of reality TV. Phil went on to win Emmy after Emmy for CBS. Then followed the hits ‘Survivor,’ ‘American Idol’ and ‘The Voice,’ so small wonder that nearly half the fodder on network and cable television now is a cornucopia of reality TV.
Plus, bonus points if you can think like a TV exec and recognize that reality series cost half what scripted series do. The buck stops here.
In a backhanded defense of his genre in The Washington Post this year, reality television producer Troy DeVolld quoted the esteemed British actor Gary Oldman as terming reality TV, with his Old World upper lip, a “museum of social decay.”
It would seem that ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Duck Dynasty’ -- the latter a measure of the decline and fall of A&E as having any art to its entertainment -- are an amazing race to the bottom in what FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow termed in 1961 television’s “vast wasteland.”
After that defining phrase, Minow kicked into even higher gear, as he could have been describing TV today when he lamented “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder… And most of all, boredom.”
Whether we’ve come a long way, baby, I leave to the eye of the beholder. Speaking for myself, “father knows best” is, at most, fake news.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.