Really pushing the envelope

WITH ALL DUE RESPECT TO THE entities sponsoring “Reality Television: How Far Can You Push the Envelope?” — a panel scheduled for this week — they’re posing the wrong question.

The reality is that reality can’t advance much farther without becoming the stuff of science fiction, a la “The Running Man” or “The Truman Show.” Producers can tinker with formats and dabble in greater unreality, but barring killing a guy or letting one kill himself (as Danny Bonaduce attempted during his VH1 train wreck), the lawyers would step in before things descend to that level.

To drive this point home, so-called reality just captured four of nine spots on the Parents Television Council’s “Best Shows for Family Viewing” list (they apparently couldn’t come up with a 10th), thanks to fare like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and NBC’s “Three Wishes.” These programs represent the new strain of “feel-good” reality, which stuffs the envelope with a flag and then mails it to Jesus.

Where the envelope is actually being pushed and pulled — and in some instances spindled and mutilated — is dramatic television, which in part explains the genre’s popular resurgence.

There is some truth to the notion that audiences like being challenged, surprised and treated to something new, which becomes increasingly difficult given the volume of media clamoring for attention. Failing to play with the form doubtless contributed to comedy’s decline, where envelope-pushing was limited to language and sexual innuendo that quickly yields diminishing returns.

Dramas, meanwhile, have been edgier than ever, exhibiting scant evidence of the chilling effects some anticipated after the morality police raided TV with renewed fury last year.

Even by HBO standards, the new period drama “Rome” features several “No, you didn’t just do that” scenes in its latest flight of episodes, including a May-November lesbian affair, brutal flashes of violence and a plot line involving incest.

Beyond that Roman bacchanal, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” is embroiled in what’s surely its darkest season, including a story in which the central couple’s embittered teenage son grapples with a transsexual who promises him “the best of both worlds.”

As PTC founder L. Brent Bozell III’s advocacy group laments, there’s also an unspoken contest in crime drama, where the glut of “CSI” wannabes (CBS alone has nine crime hours, 40% of its primetime schedule) has triggered an unappetizing game of one-upmanship in finding new ways to maim, torture and kill.

Setting those programs aside, the reason series such as “Nip/Tuck,” “Rome” and “Deadwood” work is precisely because the heightened level of R-rated action feels organic to those worlds, which is more than can be said for boundary-testing in reality. Indeed, during the stretch when reality shows grew wilder, they began to play like conscious provocateurs, unlike dramas that earn the right to press further by establishing characters viewers will follow along these decadent journeys.

Nor is the envelope-pushing confined to those old favorites — sex, violence and language. Dramatic storytelling itself has become more demanding, as evidenced by the maddening “Lost,” which has taken an almost surreal turn this season, spreading tantalizing new layers upon its existing mysteries.

Family-values advocates can rail all they like, but there’s an audience eager to be shocked and awed by such programs, in a way “reality” can’t without crossing lines even bottom line-driven moguls would be uncomfortable defending.

Where, then, will storytelling breakthroughs come from in the next few years? Tear open the envelope, and my guess is drama will spill out of it.

* * *

Since Apple and Disney made their splashy joint announcement about the video iPod disseminating episodes of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” numerous analytical pieces have contemplated whether this is the death of everything or much ado about nothing.

Based on an informal survey, the answers are “yes,” “no,” “we’re not sure,” and “Holy crap, look at the can of worms and/or Pandora’s Box that this might open.”

A few things are clear: Media consumption is undergoing a gradual revolution that has already begun with devices like TiVo, satellite radio, the iPod. Everything points toward media being more personal and portable, as I witnessed driving to Las Vegas with a friend who personally programmed every single song en route, God forbid that a CD player might spit out a bad tune on a favorite disc.

During his recent “Charlie Rose” appearance with guest host Michael Eisner, IAC/InterActiveCorp chairman Barry Diller said media are undergoing a “radical revolution” that will run its course over the next decade. In the interim, he said, “I haven’t a clue how things are going to be distributed,” living as we are “in the cauldron pit” that will determine how content reaches us.

Like many revolutions, however, this one is fraught with unintended consequences. Any innovation that radically alters distribution patterns is going to produce bleating from the usual sources, as network affiliates and talent wonder how they’ll share in the bounty from each new gadget, especially when they threaten to siphon revenue from the old model. Given the studios’ reluctance to part with DVD coin, those concerns are more practical than paranoid.

While it’s hard to bet against Apple, the Darwinian nature of this revolution is such that even TiVo — the device former FCC chairman Michael Powell dubbed “God’s machine” — could wind up a footnote, not a survivor.

So on this point, I’m with Diller. Come back in 10 years, and by then, I hope, we’ll all know.

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