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Unscripted TV Embraces Diversity, Enabled Caitlyn Jenner to Tell Her Story

Caitlyn Jenner made her debut as a woman on Monday, the same day unscripted television execs and producers joined at the RealScreen West entertainment conference in Santa Monica, Calif.

“First of all, she looks beautiful,” Jason Sarlanis, VP of alternative series at ABC, said of Jenner, during his panel session today.

“Part of the success of unscripted is that it’s embraced diversity since the beginning. For the most part, diverse talent makes for better TV,” the exec said.

“She has been a part of unscripted, since the beginning,” he added, applauding “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” for giving the former Olympian a platform to speak candidly. “The Kardashians will continue to be a vehicle for her to tell her story.”

“You’ve been living with a secret for your whole life? Well now you get a chance to tell it,” Sarlanis, who previously managed “KUWTK” at E!, before joining ABC, raved of the power of reality television. “Secrets make for great TV. Passionate people make of great TV.”

Also at RealScreen — where conference-goers were buzzing about Jenner’s big reveal — MTV exec Colin Nash spoke of Jenner’s influence on the unscripted landscape.

“We’ve talked about it a lot. Caitlyn is very exciting news,” Nash, SVP of series development of west coast reality programming, said of finding a trans-themed series for MTV. ABC Family, another young-skewing cable net, is exploring the hot topic with the Ryan Seacrest-produced docuseries “Becoming Us,” bowing this month.

“That s a space that for us has to be the right thing. We haven’t really found the right thing for MTV,” Nash said, pointing out that the network’s “True Life” has already explored the transgender community. In fact, he explained that the MTV audience is so forward-thinking, the cabler’s development team is already talking about taking the next step.

“Gender-neutral is kind of the new thing,” Nash said. “For us and our audience, just because people are transitioning, [it] doesn’t mean it’s the right fit. Trans almost feels like a couple years behind for our audience.”

Back in October 2014, MTV was home to transgender actress Laverne Cox’s Emmy-winning documentary “The T Word,” which also aired on Logo. Exposing their millennial audience to characters representative of the entire LGBT community early on, MTV’s scripted comedy “Faking It,” which explores gay and lesbian relationships in high school, was given an early Season 3 renewal and returns with new episodes this summer.

Tuesday, at his RealScreen West keynote discussion, moderated by “The Amazing Rice” host Phil Keoghan, Discovery Channel president Rich Ross brought up Jenner’s Monday news splash, when speaking on the power of Twitter during live unscripted television events.

“That was Twitter at its finest,” Ross said, referring to Jenner’s new social media presence breaking records with the fastest growing Twitter account ever (over 1.6 million followers, and more than President Obama first accumulated, in mere hours). “That was seemingly all promotion to sell more ‘Vanity Fair’ than you’ve ever seen in your life and a show on E!”

Speaking of beating the trend, Sarlanis credits reality TV with scripted programming’s recent push into diverse casting.

“They’re embracing diversity…that’s an unscripted technique. I think that’s why you’re seeing a push back to scripted TV,” the ABC exec said. “We’re not chasing diversity. We were there way ahead of the curve.”

Ross agrees. When asked by an audience-goer if Discovery Channel has a department, specifically working to diversify the cabler’s slate, he responded: “It’s everyone’s job to figure that out and that’s how you have to think. It’s not a department.”

Pointing out Discovery’s casting inclusion of both men and women, plus people of color, at a time when the network is growing, the exec said, “It’s not a coincidence. You have to show people true people.”

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