By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Reality is on a roll. Nearly 30 shows using unscripted scenarios and amateur performers will be on the air this fall. Some are reprises from last season ("Temptation Island 2" "Survivor 3: Africa," "The Mole II") and some are new, boasting edgy concepts. "The Runner" (coming midseason on ABC) engages the TV audience in helping to track down a "fugitive," while "Murder in Small Town X" (already airing on Fox) asks its 10 contestants to find a fictional serial killer.
But while programmers are delighted to wake up their summer schedules with these relatively cheap programs - not to mention get attention for their sheer outrageousness (think rats nibbling on contestants in "Fear Factor") - long term these shows may be important for two reasons: the way they're changing television's ability to tell a story and what they say about the evolving tastes of audiences.
"What's new," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, "is you have contrived parameters, and you bring [in] people from the body of the population, of which we are all part, without this heady air of stardom...."
These new unscripted shows have been compared to the circus or gladiatorial contests, but Mr. Thompson notes those traditional formats had carefully scripted rules for performers. This new genre, even with all its potential for degrading excesses, introduces a new freedom to invent. "It's like a giant jazz riff," he says.
When the reality-TV fad shakes out, he suggests, it will leave an ongoing legacy. "Jazz music is the best comparison because it has all these parameters with all this improvisation."
The unscripted format is broad enough to encompass elements of sports shows, game shows, and improvisational acting. "But it's all put into a relatively old-fashioned storytelling structure, and that's one of the reasons it's exploding," Thompson adds.
"It's almost like instead of writing 'Moby Dick,' Melville went and got a ship and populated it with real people and headed out to sea and sat there to wait and see what would happen. [Reality TV] has roots in other genres, but it leaves so much to serendipity. Watchers of the history of Western storytelling have got to be excited because Aristotle didn't identify this. It is really something different."
The ability to explore new forms is also an attraction for the behind-the-scenes talent. "Part of the excitement and part of the nerve-wracking [element] of producing reality television is you cannot predict," says Chris Cowan, executive producer of "Temptation Island 2." "That's actually the great allure, for me, of reality television, because [the participants are] real people. …