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Writers have reason to get real

IN “ANNIE HALL,” Woody Allen magically produces Marshall McLuhan to support his argument and wonders why real life can’t be that satisfying. Indeed, reality can often use a little creative assist, as so-called unscripted series regularly demonstrate.

Reality TV’s scripted nature is a focal point of contention as the Writers Guild of America undertakes a renewed push to bring such programs under guild contracts. And while I normally avoid becoming embroiled in union negotiations, this summer’s crop of so-called unscripted series provides a stark and perhaps timely reminder of what a misnomer “reality” has become.

Coming in July, for example, is Fox’s “The Princes of Malibu,” a wholly concocted endeavor in which music producer David Foster plays the beset stepfather of twentysomething hellraisers Brandon and Brody, who throw a huge party while their wealthy folks are on vacation… only to have them “unexpectedly” come home early! Not since Paris and Nicole visited their first cow pasture has there been a more overtly staged bit of madcap lunacy, unconvincingly billed as “unscripted.”

Still, such artifice is increasingly the norm rather than exception. Consider Jerry Hall’s stilted dialogue on VH1’s “Kept,” the butler-like voiceover on NBC’s “I Want to Be a Hilton,” the food-throwing tantrums on Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” or the actor playing “Lou the Doorman,” the narrator on E!’s “Gastineau Girls.”

As for who supplies these sparks of inspiration, perusing the credits amounts to a “Where’s Waldo?”-type game, with the “writers” (or more accurately, “storytellers”) buried somewhere under the heading of “story producer,” “story editor,” “segment producer” or just plain “editor,” given how that process can shape and manipulate the narrative.

Thus far, people continue to suspend disbelief long enough to tune in, though diminished ratings for most nonfiction fare suggest the level of stage management in President Bush’s neatly orchestrated public addresses to friendly crowds is about as much scripted reality as most viewers can endure.

CLEARLY, THE WGA has a point when it says “reality” displays intricate storytelling techniques, but that shouldn’t sway anyone to believe the guild is being magnanimous by welcoming its purveyors. Not only will bringing “reality” into the fold contribute to the guild’s coffers, but as prexy Daniel Petrie Jr. stated in a letter to members, “Our position at the bargaining table is weakened to the extent that such a significant component of TV programming is not represented by us.”

In other words, inviting “reality” into the guild would potentially remove a key component of the networks’ arsenal when writers and producers negotiate a new agreement in 2007. The genre’s modern form, after all, was birthed as a strike-proof alternative to sitcoms and dramas, giving rise to “Cops” in the 1980s, among others.

The jockeying over reality shows also comes amid related developments that surely have writers grinding their teeth. Look no further than two recent Variety headlines regarding the unexpected windfalls studios are reaping from the DVD sale of TV series as well as the shrinking duration of theatrical windows, likely hastening the flow of box office dollars into ancillary platforms.

Recall, too, how steadfastly the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers has resisted allowing the guilds to dip any deeper into the DVD revenue stream, as the entire business grapples with shifting exhibition models that will still yield plenty of profit, though not necessarily flowing from the traditional conduits.

PUT IN THIS CONTEXT, it’s understandable why talent guilds fear becoming the Washington Generals suiting up to play against the AMPTP’s Harlem Globetrotters. And while writers sensibly averting a pointless strike in cementing their last contract, they appear overdue for a victory with financial implications, as opposed to merely symbolic ones such as haggling over directors’ “A film by” credit.

This confluence of events might explain why Petrie went a little overboard by labeling reality programs “sweatshops,” an analogy that would be more convincing if actual sweatshops provided craft-services tables. Nevertheless, the stakes here are higher than simply whether the story-whatever-you-call-’ems cobbling together situations for “Princes of Malibu” will be granted guild benefits and admitted to the writing fraternity.

By the way, the Globetrotters vs. the Generals might have resembled basketball, but the outcome was preordained, and one team always lost. And if that sounds scripted, well, it’s just the sort of game that the studios love to play.

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