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
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
"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
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,"
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
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. …