To be part of a reality television show, you either have to be nice – or evil.
No, I won’t do reality TV. I’m just not ‘real’ enough
‘You know what would be fun,” a friend of mine in the reality television business asked me a year or so ago. “It would be a really fun show to just follow you around as you launch a new television series. I think people would really like that,” she said. “People like the inside scoop. They like to see real people doing real things and just being themselves.”
She’s one of those people who just barrel along in a conversation – a torrent of words gushing forth in an unstoppable sales pitch – and though it’s made her a very successful and rich television producer, it also blinds her to what the person she’s talking to is signalling.
In this case, just as she said, “you know what would be fun...” I started to shake my head vigorously. I knew exactly where she was going. Reality television producers aren’t going to be happy until each one of us has his own television show.
“I don’t get it,” she said, when it finally sank in that there was zero chance I would agree. “Why not? Is it money? We pay our on-screen talent really well.”
“You don’t have enough money,” I said.
“How do you know?” she countered smugly.
“Because there isn’t enough money. In the universe.”
I then went on to explain that in my day-to-day dealings with networks and studios and actors I often use the kind of language that simply cannot be broadcast on American television.
“We can bleep it out,” she said. “We do it all the time.”
“You can’t bleep out a 20-minute tirade against an agent who just told me the client I want to hire – a client he sold me on – is unavailable until the autumn of the following year.”
And then there’s the business problem. Although my friend insisted that everyone likes to get the “inside scoop” on something, I’m not so sure. It’s another example of the old adage, “everyone loves sausage, but no one wants to see the sausage get made”. Putting together a television series requires the kind of treacherous, double-dealing behaviour – not to mention filthy language – that can ruin a person’s reputation if made public.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “The public loves that stuff.”
“I’m not worried about the public,” I said. “I’m worried about the people I see everyday. I don’t care if someone I’ve never set eyes on knows I occasionally stretch the truth when discussing script deadlines, but I can’t let my agent know. Or the network president.”
But that’s not really why I don’t want to be on reality television. What I finally had to confess was that I just don’t think I’m nice enough – or evil enough, frankly – to hold the attention of an audience. Honestly, when I’m alone with my thoughts, sometimes I find my own interest wandering over to the person in the next seat at the coffee shop. What do they have in that bag? Why do they look like they’ve been crying? It takes real effort to drag my mind back to the subject at hand.
Reality television stars have to be interesting in some way. They have to arrest the audience midway through flipping channels, and they can’t, as I do, say oddly elliptical things and behave passive-aggressively towards their assistant. On film, passive-aggressive doesn’t cut it. You have to be aggressive-aggressive. You have to be bold and brassy and utterly unretiring. And I’m none of those things.
On the other hand, as certain large American cable networks have discovered recently, there’s such a thing as too real. The cable television hit Duck Dynasty follows the exploits of a colourful family of Louisiana outdoorsmen who have a family business manufacturing all kinds of duck hunting equipment. They sport long beards and camouflage trousers, speak with Deep South accents and espouse the kind of deeply-held religious views that make sophisticated network television executives shift awkwardly in their chairs and stare at the floor.
The patriarch of the family was quoted in a national magazine saying something bold and brassy and utterly unretiring about gays and the network on which his show appears has been put in a complicated bind. They can cancel the show and lose all of that money or keep the show on and hear from the groups that represent the offended parties.
But that’s what you get when you put real people on television. You see real people just being themselves. And it’s not always pretty.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl