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Shining the Spotlight on Reality Television

Anyone considering a career as a television writer needs to get real -- literally. Reality TV is having a major impact on the creative side of the industry.

At first glance, that impact can seem fairly negative. Just ask casting director Karen Hazzard.

"As more and more reality shows flood the airwaves, it reduces the number of dramatic shows and sitcoms as well as movies for television," she says. "Fewer productions mean fewer jobs."

And with reality shows taking over the networks, a new breed of performer is emerging.

"Reality TV takes away from the amount of jobs available for 'real' actors. And it adds to the pool of what some call 'wannabe actors,'" says agent Rod Baron.

"Pick any reality show you see on TV, and I will have one or more of the 'stars' of that show call me to be represented for NON reality TV work."

But some industry insiders see good things in the trend. One is the opportunity to stretch yourself artistically.

Actor Jonathan Robbins says reality show viewers are becoming more discriminating. They're expecting realistic, believable "performances" on all the shows they watch -- including non-reality shows.

"Reality shows are creating smarter audiences who are more aware of the illusions actors employ," he says. "That means we actors have to refine our technique to create a truly genuine performance."

Baron says it may be more a matter of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"If you can get yourself on a reality show, have fun with it. Make some money -- if you have a good agent -- and use that small three- or four-month window of exposure to your advantage. Exposure works. It makes people interested."

Reality TV has also encouraged talented people to create their own acting opportunities.

"Reality TV has had a part in inspiring a new wave of documentary video and docu-drama films," says actor Philip DeWilde.

"Actors and new directors are picking up cheap digital video cams and the end product can turn out to be some master works....I think it's a wake-up call to start creating our own projects."

Directors can also benefit from working with, rather than against, the reality TV trend. Mark McQuown has worked as art director or assistant director on several reality shows, including Temptation Island and Big Brother. He says directors should be prepared to re-learn their craft in order to accommodate this new format.

After working on a reality show shot in Belize, McQuown experienced first-hand the need to be flexible and adaptable.

"The director and the writers were going crazy after the first few days because the format was just so different from 'normal' television. They had to re-think their entire craft in order to put in the can what the producers were looking for."

Scriptwriters also need to adapt, says McQuown.

"It's not that scriptwriters have been pushed out of a career. But...they have to learn how to write that which seems not to be written so the reality quality comes out of the production."

How's that for irony? In order for the reality quality to shine through, the script has to be written.

"There will always be writers, even on reality TV, because regardless of how good they are, actors don't write dialog well, on the spot and without rehearsal."

Love it or hate it, reality TV isn't likely to simply fade to black. Tony Atherton is a longtime TV columnist with a daily newspaper. He says it boils down to economics.

"I think reality programming is here to stay. It is and will continue to be a staple on cable channels that don't have a lot of money to spend. Writers obviously don't like the new trend, but producers are not adverse to it and networks are open to anything that sells soap."

But that doesn't mean reality shows will overtake the airwaves.

"I don't believe reality TV will supplant dramatic TV and comedies as the predominant form on TV," says Atherton.

"It lacks staying power. It has no life in reruns, which is where TV shows become welded into the pop-culture subconscious."

Actor David Guthrie says reality TV should not be considered a serious threat to any creative art form. "I tell anyone wanting to get into the business to keep doing what they're doing. Real acting and writing isn't going anywhere. These talents can co-exist with reality TV."


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