Un­scripted TV pon­ders re­al­ity of Trump’s Amer­ica

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR

Three days af­ter the first re­al­ity TV pres­i­dent was sworn into of­fice, hun­dreds of re­al­ity TV pro­duc­ers swarmed into Wash­ing­ton for the RealScreen Sum­mit, an annual con­fer­ence for non­fic­tion pro­gram­mers. Posters pro­mot­ing the new show “Mama June: From NOT to HOT” promised that the “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” star un­der­go­ing ex­ten­sive plas­tic surgery would be “a more shock­ing re­veal than the elec­tion results.”

Even aside from the mar­ket­ing gim­micks, Pres­i­dent Trump, the for­mer “Ap­pren­tice” star, was a pop­u­lar con­ver­sa­tion topic. The phrase “the next four years” re­peat­edly came up as ex­perts pon­dered the im­pact Trump’s vic­tory could have on re­al­ity TV: What will view­ers want to watch? (Scripted pro­gram­mers have al­ready or­dered pi­lots about “red state” com­mu­ni­ties and the mil­i­tary.) And since the elec­tion proved a wide swath of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion feels over­looked by the “coastal elites,” should New York and Los An­ge­les­based net­works ad­just their strate­gies?

Some ex­ec­u­tives were cau­tious about try­ing to form a spe­cific game plan. “I do think it’s a mis­take to say, ‘Okay, Trump’s in of­fice, let’s pro­gram this way,’ ” A&E ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Rob Sharenow said dur­ing a Q&A.

“Be­cause I think that of­ten times, you can never pre­dict how cul­ture is go­ing to re­spond or what peo­ple are go­ing to want.”

A&E ex­pe­ri­enced that les­son late last year when the network an­nounced “Gen­er­a­tion KKK,” a docu-series about mem­bers try­ing to leave the hate group. The back­lash was se­vere as peo­ple wor­ried any spotlight would help nor­mal­ize the Ku Klux Klan af­ter an elec­tion that em­bold­ened white na­tion­al­ists. Ex­ec­u­tives changed the show’s ti­tle to “Es­cap­ing the KKK: A Doc­u­men­tary Series Ex­pos­ing Hate in Amer­ica” be­fore they scrapped the project com­pletely, say­ing that they dis­cov­ered third-party pro­duc­ers paid sub­jects to par­tic­i­pate, which is against A&E pol­icy.

Sharenow said the network is in­ves­ti­gat­ing what hap­pened and em­pha­sized he still be­lieves in the show’s mis­sion of spot­light­ing peo­ple who want to es­cape the or­ga­ni­za­tion. In terms of fu­ture pro­gram­ming, he said, his network will con­tinue to fo­cus on top­ics that don’t see much cov­er­age else­where.

“Great mo­ments of A&E over the past decade have been mo­ments that open doors to things hap­pen­ing in cul­ture that haven’t re­ally been looked at,” Sharenow said, cit­ing shows such as “In­ter­ven­tion,” an un­flinch­ing por­trayal of those bat­tling sub­stance abuse, and “Born This Way,” which stars adults with Down syn­drome.

Given the many vot­ers in the elec­tion who felt “for­got­ten,” par­tic­u­larly in the mid­dle class, re­al­ity TV pro­duc­ers dis­cussed ways to reach out to view­ers who are un­der­rep­re­sented, both on screen and be­hind the cam­era. One panel’s de­scrip­tion specif­i­cally asked: “How does this dis­par­ity, noted of­ten in the run-up and af­ter­math of the re­cent U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, man­i­fest it­self in un­scripted con­tent? What sto­ries are be­ing missed, and who should tell them?”

Although re­al­ity TV has turned the spotlight on non-coastal Amer­ica with hit shows such as “Duck Dy­nasty,” pro­duc­ers noted that in the past sev­eral years, there are fewer work­ing-class re­al­ity shows, es­pe­cially since the days of TLC’s “Jon & Kate Plus 8” (20072010), about the Penn­syl­va­nia fam­ily with eight kids, or Dis­cov­ery’s self-ex­plana­tory “Dirty Jobs” (2005-2012). ITV En­ter­tain­ment pres­i­dent David Eilen­berg, who mod­er­ated the panel, pointed out that you’re more likely to see shows cen­tered on peo­ple with un­usual life­styles, from “Real Housewives” to the al­li­ga­tor-hunt­ing “Swamp Peo­ple.”

“I think one of the prob­lems with our in­dus­try is that once there’s one, it’s ‘We need 17 of that ex­act same thing,’” said Pa­trick Jager, who helped de­velop HGTV jug­ger­naut “Fixer Up­per,” star­ring a hus­band-wife con­trac­tor de­signer team from Waco, Tex. “Four years ago it was ‘What’s our “Duck Dy­nasty?” ’ Now it’s ‘What’s our “Fixer Up­per?”’ Ev­ery­one chases the same thing be­cause they say that’s what ev­ery­body wants to see. That’s a prob­lem, be­cause then we’re all try­ing to de­pict the same type of per­son.”

So how do you solve the is­sue? One key is to erase the idea that pro­duc­ers who don’t live in New York or Los An­ge­les are “out­siders.” Mem­bers of a panel that fea­tured pro­duc­ers and ex­ec­u­tives from Knoxville, Tenn.; Den­ver; St. Louis and Min­neapo­lis said although plenty of net­works are in­ter­ested in shows from the fly­over states, there’s def­i­nitely still a “cool kid” men­tal­ity of cer­tain coastal brands. Some peo­ple still ask, “Why is your com­pany there?”

“If we’re try­ing to bridge this di­vide be­tween the ur­ban and the ru­ral and try to tell sto­ries, post-Novem­ber, about our world, that mind-set within our group has to change,” said Jager, who runs the Den­ver-based CORE In­no­va­tion Group.

When net­works do fea­ture shows with com­mu­ni­ties they’re not fa­mil­iar with, ev­ery­one agreed the most im­por­tant el­e­ment is au­then­tic­ity. John Feld is the se­nior vice pres­i­dent of pro­gram­ming for HGTV, DIY Network and Great Amer­i­can Coun­try, which are head­quar­tered in Knoxville, Tenn. His net­works have a tac­ti­cal ad­van- tage when they want to tell sto­ries from Mid­dle Amer­ica, he said, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they know what the au­di­ence wants.

“When I see an ur­ban-based pro­duc­tion com­pany . . . de­pict our cities, it’s al­ways a de­pic­tion that will ap­peal to their ur­ban view­ers,” Feld said. “With some of these other net­works, they’re not ap­peal­ing to the peo­ple that live there as much as they’re ap­peal­ing to the peo­ple that live in New York and Los An­ge­les.”

They also de­bated whether a lack of work­ing-class pro­gram­ming is the fault of the sto­ry­tellers or the chan­nel ex­ec­u­tives them­selves. A com­mon ex­cuse that net­works use for blue-col­lar shows is that they’re “ad­ver­tiser un­friendly.”

“One of the things that I keep hear­ing is that pro­duc­ers who bring projects that tell sto­ries that aren’t ‘cool kid’ sto­ries are told that it’s not some­thing ad­ver­tis­ers want,” said Eilen­berg, whose com­pany de­vel­ops and pro­duces shows for net­works. “So that seems to be one of the lines of de­fense from network buy­ers, is that ad­ver­tis­ers re­ally want things that are ‘up­scale, more ur­bane, more glam­orous.’ ” (“The Bach­e­lor” and “Shark Tank” are just two types of shows that ad­ver­tis­ers crave be­cause view­ers are young and rich.)

Yet if a show be­comes a hit, ad­ver­tis­ers don’t re­ally care — take AMC’s hit “The Walk­ing Dead.” “Who would ad­ver­tise on a show about flesh-eat­ing zom­bies? Ev­ery­body,” Eilen­berg said, to much laugh­ter.

Most im­por­tantly, net­works need to find out what view­ers are ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in see­ing on TV, and whether there are truly cross­over au­di­ences. Eilen­berg brought up the New York Times’s “cul­tural di­vide” TV map af­ter the elec­tion, which showed how po­lit­i­cal views align with pop cul­ture pref­er­ences. For ex­am­ple, view­er­ship of “Duck Dy­nasty,” the series about the con­ser­va­tive mil­lion­aire duck-call man­u­fac­tur­ers in Louisiana, was a pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of a Trump voter.

“One of the is­sues of a to­tally dis­ag­gre­gated tele­vi­sion land­scape is that peo­ple can use their screens as mir­rors in­stead of as win­dows,” Eilen­berg said. “And I don’t know how to stop them from do­ing that, if at all.”

Ul­ti­mately, pro­duc­ers the­o­rized that TV au­di­ences are a more open-minded group than they’re given credit for, and it’s up to net­works to have di­verse of­fer­ings.

“I think peo­ple are look­ing for con­nec­tions to their real life and day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Jane Dur­kee, vice pres­i­dent of Tremen­dous En­ter­tain­ment in Min­neapo­lis. “So if you’re re­flect­ing them and of­fer­ing those choices, peo­ple will grav­i­tate to those shows that have that com­mon­al­ity.

“If we’re try­ing to bridge this di­vide be­tween the ur­ban and the ru­ral and try to tell sto­ries, post Novem­ber, about our world, that mind-set within our group has to change.” Pa­trick Jager, of Knoxville, Tenn.-based HGTV, on ap­peal­ing to view­ers be­yond New York and Los An­ge­les.

DOUG CHAYKA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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