Reality TV spawns creative, meatier shows
Picture this: Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger wins the California governorship next month. As the newly elected Republican governor, he heads to Washington for congratulations. Somewhere along Pennsylvania Avenue, he meets fellow actor George Clooney for an acting gig ... as his newly elected self. Mr. Clooney is directing a new HBO series, "K Street," which features actors playing lobbyists who are pestering real-life politicians (possibly including Arnold) about current topics such as Iraq and immigration.
If you're confused, that's good. Blurring the fact/fiction line is partly the point of the new 10-part series, which debuts Sept. 14. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, and John McCain (R) of Arizona are among the officials who have made the trek from Capitol Hill to "K Street." The show shoots and airs the same week in an effort to stay up to the minute. (Critics have yet to see a full show because of this tactic.)
"K Street" may be on premium cable, but it's just one of several new, unscripted shows that pundits are calling the next evolution of reality TV.
"This third stage is potentially the most interesting," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. The first two stages of this genre, which he dubs "vitamin-enriched reality" - in which the boring parts are edited out - were marked by shows such as "Real World" and "Survivor."
"Finally," he says, "we have people who have been working at this form long enough that we're beginning to have writers who see the real creative potential of merging serendipity and stylized scripted material."
The result: The TV landscape is leaning toward friendlier, more educational unscripted shows, particularly on cable.
Other forces are at work as well, say some. "The world has dramatically changed over the past two years, and Americans have been forced to reassess their priorities," says Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks. "The new programming that we're developing will reflect this new trend."
A kinder, gentler approach is reflected throughout the fall schedule - at least on basic cable. The National Geographic Channel's "Worlds Apart" drops an American family into a mud and goatskin hut in the remote desert of northern Kenya and follows their learning and maturing curve as they reside with the Rendille tribe. ABC Family's "Perfect Match: New York" harks back to the days of traditional matchmaking - when friends and family tried finding their relative a perfect mate - instead of taking the hot-tub route. And a whole slew of makeover shows, from Bravo's hit "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," to Lifetime's "Merge" and WE's "Mix It Up," forgo the ambush in favor of collaborative persuasion.
"It's important for us to be in a place where life unscripted is not about messing with people," says Roger Marmet, vice president of programming of Discovery's TLC, home to the popular "Trading Spaces." "It's not about deceiving them."
This ethos has not necessarily translated onto the broadcast networks, where shock and humiliation are back in full swing (as evidenced by the return of "Joe Millionaire").
For "K Street," creator Steven Soderbergh says he drew inspiration from an earlier HBO project, "Tanner 88," in which a fictional presidential candidate interacted with real-life candidates and voters.
Mr. Soderbergh wanted to take advantage of new digital technology to shoot in a "run and gun" fashion and to incorporate as many real figures as possible - including well-known speechwriters and former spouses, James Carville and Mary Matalin, who serve as consultants for "K Street."
Ms. Matalin hopes the show will give viewers a better sense of what makes politicians run. "People who are in the process are there because they believe in something, and there's a large element of idealism," she says, "but the actual process is realistic. And I think people in public service are proud of it and would like to see that process displayed."
At the same time, says Mr. Carville, "K Street" has the potential to show a process that some might call downright cynical. "It's not going to be a kind of ninth-grade civics lesson: 'This is the Congress of the United States, and you introduce a bill, and it goes to committee number such and such," he says. "Bismarck said it best: You shouldn't watch sausage or laws being made."
As with anything where the line between fiction and fact is fuzzy, "K Street" could be controversial. "It's swimming right on the edges of where fiction meets reality," says Thompson. "When you're showing your public servants, who we elected to represent us in the most important jobs in existence, you don't want to be playing that game. This shouldn't be 'Real World: Washington,' starring our elected officials."
Mr. Soderbergh says the show is not about the private lives of any of the participants, but will deal strictly with issues that are in the news. "Our hope is that will make it possible in a way to get to some politicians and get them involved and get them talking," Soderbergh says, hopefully before they feel "talked out" by the regular media.
"K-Street" isn't C-Span. "It's an attempt," he says, "to show this process that goes on all day, every day."