Magazine article Variety

The New Real Is ENHANCED

Magazine article Variety

The New Real Is ENHANCED

Article excerpt

Demand for bigger ratings means unscripted series are creating larger-than-life personalities through manipulation

For unscripted TV producers, manipulation - and even downright staging of events - is the new normal.

With the necessity to balance production budgets paired with an audi- ence (and network) demand for louder, more entertaining content, the landscape of the unscripted space has changed over the last several years. The development of characters is key in the new reality, where boisterous personalities - be they Snooki, Honey Boo Boo or any of the bearded men from Duck Dynasty - can be plugged into structured scenarios and nail bold, funny moments - which, in the end, translates to good TV.

And although the manipulation of reality has prompted lawsuits and lots of tabloid press, viewers don't seem to mind.

Duck Dynasty - cited by many in the TV biz as one of the most heavily produced shows of the reality bunch - broke ratings records for A&E, pulling almost 10 million viewers during its season three finale. The April finale telecast also beat Fox's American Idol in adults 18-49.

Storage Wars also draws solid viewership for A&E, even when facing a lawsuit from a former cast member surround- ing "salting" the storage units on the show and faking footage. Sometimes, publicity about the veracity of a show can even help drive auds to the program - TLC's Breaking Amish saw a climb in ratings after news broke that the cast members may not be as Amish as viewers initially thought.

"Bear in mind that all reality TV has a level of manipulation," says John Langley, who created uber-unscripted series Cops. "The minute you edit anything, there's manipulation."

Some shows, including Discovery's Amish Mafia, have moved toward content that critics claim to be scripted. Mafia includes a pre-program disclaimer, stating that the show employs "re-enactments" of certain events, leading some to wonder if the cast members should be simply dubbed "actors."

"Are people going to remain interested in this genre of TV when they realize none of this is real?," asks Tom Forman, top- per of reality shingle RelativityReal (Catfish, The Great Food 7Yuck Race). "I worry about that."

The competition for audience-grabbing fare can be so stiff that some producers note that when they turn in a reel for a show, they understand that they are competing for project orders against what is essentially scripted content, Forman says.

Rasha Drachkovitch, who heads 44 Blue Prods, and produc- es such shows as MSNBC's Lockup franchise and Animal Planet hit Pit Bulls & Parolees, says, "The notes from networks tend to be, 'We need things to happen sooner, faster and bigger.' "

One of the easiest ways to meet this network need and keep budgets low is to create structured environments for reality cast members to interact in - that means staging, suggesting scenarios and even crafting dialogue for interviews.

The most obvious benefit of staging situations in reality TV, per Forman, is "that you can ratchet up the level of comedy or drama and emotion" during a short lensing period. Reality TV is a low-margin business, so quick turnaround and a continu- ous flow of content is necessary for a lucrative run.

For Duck Dynasty, this means placing the charismatic fam- ily of bearded men in humorous scenarios, like lawn-mower races between rivals in the Bayou community. On Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, that may mean sending the family to a red- neck fair. …

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