As strike looms, reality TV ramps up

UPON MOVING into my home, I was apprised by a neighbor of a nearby residence locally known as “the porn house,” where people notoriously came and went at all hours. The “Welcome to Gomorrah” image was reinforced weeks later by almost literally bumping into an adult-film star — apparently dressed for work — exiting a local drugstore.

There aren’t many perks associated with living in the San Fernando Valley, but here was one of them.

Personally, I’ve never objected to film crews, legit or otherwise, descending on the neighborhood. There’s something reassuring about taking the geriatric dog for her morning constitutional (these days less a walk than a drag) and seeing bleary-eyed movie and TV personnel loitering around trailers, idly sipping coffee. Anything to help bolster the local economy.

That said, if the only way to keep Southern California’s production numbers from sagging hinge on the current influx of reality TV, my preference would be that we stick to porn stars of the old-fashioned variety.

RECENT FIGURES from Film L.A. indicate that the one major growth area in Los Angeles-based production is so-called reality television, which soared by more than 50% last year. In discussing the trend, Film L.A. president Steve MacDonald diplomatically said while his nonprofit organization welcomed the heightened activity, reality fare doesn’t yield the same economic benefits as episodic dramas or features.

Moreover, just as reality “characters” are frequently pawns within TV programs — dancing to the tune of unseen editors and “story producers” (translation: almost writers), who shape the narrative they want to convey — the genre itself has become a pawn in a larger chess match between major studios and the Writers Guild of America, which has strategically sought to bring shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” under guild jurisdiction, in part to hedge against their use in supplanting scripted fare during a potential writers strike.

Of course, the oxymoronic concept of scripted reality TV should theoretically be problematic, but members of the public, bless ’em, have never seemed particularly bothered by the notion that “reality” is generally a misnomer. Just try separating fact from fiction, for example, watching MTV’s “Maui Fever,” which boasts seven executive producers, three “story producers,” a trio of editors but not one credited writer — the implication being that philosopher-kings Corbin and Jesse dream up dialogue like “Bro, I haven’t gotten laid in six days” by themselves. (Granted, artistically speaking, it’s hard to envision many writers lining up to demand recognition for such an exchange.)

Although the customary saber-rattling associated with labor tensions has thus far remained relatively muted, rhetoric at the WGA’s upcoming awards ceremony will be worth monitoring. As for the networks, because going dark isn’t an option in a worst-case scenario, they’ll inevitably begin taking steps to stockpile unscripted fare as the threat of a work stoppage looms closer — which means more reality wannabes invading unsuspecting neighborhoods, taking up residence in strangely vacant L.A. mansions where they can experience incredible journeys of emotional growth.

FOR YEARS, I was sympathetic to the plight of ordinary people risking pain and humiliation to enter this world, but no longer. Naivete isn’t a viable excuse anymore, and folks eager to achieve 15 minutes of fame too-often selfishly subject loved ones and even minor children to unflattering exposure on series such as “Nanny 911” and “Wife Swap.” Ditto for the by-now-annual lament about contestant abuse on “American Idol,” where, with rare exceptions, the maxim should be “Let the buyer (or more accurately, the ‘bought on the cheap’) beware.”

Reality TV is doubtless here to stay, but my fear is that its progeny will soon begin swelling and swallowing gaping swaths of L.A. — kind of like “The Blob” — if producers and the guilds can’t find middle ground that will keep the wheels churning scripted production. Given the damage both sides could endure versus the amount either is likely to gain from letting the town shut down, hope surely lingers among interested parties that cooler heads will prevail.

If they don’t, knowing that purveyors of “reality” are uniquely positioned to help quickly fill the void, I have a sinking feeling that there goes the neighborhood.

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