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Hard Work and Hard Words

One of the reasons why I like attending and moderating sessions at the Realscreen Summit is that it gives me a chance to not only meet and talk with producers and network execs who create non-fiction TV, but also because it allows me to look at your work from an entirely different angle.
March 1, 2010

One of the reasons why I like attending and moderating sessions at the Realscreen Summit is that it gives me a chance to not only meet and talk with producers and network execs who create non-fiction TV, but also because it allows me to look at your work from an entirely different angle.

My time there reinforces how thoroughly impressed I am with the amount of work and effort that it takes to produce an unscripted series from concept to delivery.

For example, this year I was asked to moderate a session featuring the producers and Animal Planet executives behind Whale Wars. During that panel, someone asked the producers about insurance. Although the docudrama is one of my favorite series, I’d never even considered how it was insured before, or how difficult acquiring such insurance must be. And it made me realize that there must be a thousand of those kinds of things on top of the obvious, like how impossibly challenging it is to film environmentalists having their vessels nearly torn open by ice, or rammed by Japanese whaling ships.

Alas, whether a show is insured or not, or how much money or work has gone into making it, won’t matter to most viewers. They watch; they like it or they don’t.

I’m the same way: I critique what’s there. What’s on the screen is the point of the production process, so it’s what I have to judge. Sometimes, I love the results. Sometimes, I eviscerate them, criticizing the show’s producers for anything from uninteresting casting to manipulative editing to poorly designed challenges.

Of course, I know there’s a lot more complexity behind the scenes. Five years ago, after writing about news reports that story editors in reality programming created fake sentences out of fragments of others, an editor wrote to me and insisted that editors would rather tell the stories authentically. The letter writer blamed network executives and other higher-ups for demanding drama that just didn’t exist while cutting budgets, making it very difficult to produce quality reality TV.

I appreciated the note and published it, because it makes an excellent point: good people with good intentions are those responsible for what I, my fellow critics, and the public are watching on TV, and sometimes those choices aren’t even their call. That end product is the result of hundreds or thousands of choices, from camera crew to the editing room, from story producers’ outlines to network executives’ notes.

When I put on my critic’s hat, though, all of those choices coalesce into an episode. Even though I can appreciate every choice that makes a show worthy of praise or criticism, it’s my job to make an argument to viewers about what they’re watching. The best intentions don’t matter if what’s on the screen just doesn’t work.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred (realityblurred.com) and writes TV criticism for MSNBC.com.

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