Reality Check: Peep Show – America’s penchant for voyeurism gains ground as the reality-based genre gathers steam

Love it or hate it, reality-based programming is a consistent ratings grabber produced at...
May 1, 1998

Love it or hate it, reality-based programming is a consistent ratings grabber produced at

a fraction of the cost of traditional drama. As U.S. cablers and networks trot out their fall fare at L.A. Screenings, IAN EDWARDS sizes up the status of reality in America

It’s a fact: Reality-based programming is a main course in the diet of North American television viewers, who are still hungry for true-life melodrama.

Relatively inexpensive to produce, infinitely diverse in content, sufficiently interesting to attract stable, core audiences and global enough to appeal to international television buyers, this year’s new reality-based shows continue the trend to inform, titillate, gross out and fascinate audiences with real-life stories.

‘Reality is a staple in television, as much as the talk show or the sitcom,’ says distributor Richard Perin of MG Perin in New York. He has experienced success with Coast Guard, by Tam Communications of San Jose, about cops on the water, which ran for three seasons in syndication in about 100 markets, including New York, Chicago and l.a.

This season, he’ll introduce News of the Weird, a syndicated show based on the newspaper column of the same name, by High Five Entertainment of Nashville. Perin calls it a tongue-in-cheek take on stories from the press that celebrate the humorous side of being human. The show will involve re-enactment and reportage, he says.

In the world of reality-based programs, fact is better than fiction. News of the Weird purports to be based on true stories. Other shows will plumb the depths of sensational human experience: true crime, disaster, people embarrassing themselves, extreme behavior. In all, the shows ply the prurient interest of television ‘voyeurs’ with coverage that can turn bleeding accident victims, vandalized homeowners or grieving parents into fetishes.

Police cruisers are still the favorite shooting locations, while firehalls, emergency rooms and the wild outdoors are catching up fast. As an example, David Hudson, a producer at Los Angeles-based GRB Entertainment, says there is growth in earth-science shows. grb is producing Storm Warning, 13 half-hours about tornados, hurricanes and other weather systems of destruction for Discovery Channel. It’s also backing a six-part, one-hour series for The Learning Channel, Earth’s Fury, which will explore El Niño, floods, quakes and tsunamis.

The international appetite for u.s. shows is enough to have encouraged New York distributor SPI International to jump on the reality-based bandwagon two years ago. ‘We’re in a real growth trend,’ explains Meri Chermak-Hassouni, vp of acquisitions at spi. ‘[Reality-based programming is] a genre that really works as long as it’s big enough to sell internationally. There is a real need out there, because they are shows that everyone can relate to and buyers are always asking for them.’

spi is distributing I Witness which airs on CBS Eye on People in the u.s. I Witness, by Broadcast News Network in New York, is 18 hours or 35 half-hours of down-and-dirty documentary storytelling by video jockeys who infiltrate diverse subjects such as the birth of the militia, circuses and wilderness quests.

spi’s Over the Edge, by Smiling Gator of New Jersey, is 26 half-hours of people doing incredible, freakish stunts: eating lightbulbs, playing flutes with their noses. ‘These aren’t gimmicks,’ promises spi in its sales pitch. ‘There are no tricks. There are no gadgets. These are real people, really bizarre, really amazing and really over the edge!’

When tv shows replace carnival sideshows, air real-life surgeries like vasectomies and face lifts in all their visceral glory, and show actual dead bodies as they are found, cold and broken by investigating coroners, there seems to be no limit to where reality-based programs can go.

Most programs – especially those pushing boundaries of good taste or acceptable levels of violence – come with disclaimers that warn of potentially offensive or gruesome content. Many suppliers, meanwhile, are staying away from material that is too sexualized, although standards there are relative. ‘The only place reality tv hasn’t been is the bedroom,’ says Perin, ‘but we can’t get it on the air. The fcc, the crtc would call it pornography.

‘We’ve already taken [the genre] to an exploitive level,’ he adds. ‘I had someone in my office proposing a reality show and he had tape of people getting hit by trains. I’m not squeamish, but it was disgusting. We’ve gone as far as we can go without running into advertiser resistance. Murder and mayhem do not help sell toothpaste.’

Perin believes the next wave of reality shows will be a growth in ‘blooper’ shows. ‘We need reality with a lighter touch,’ he says.

The legal issues surrounding reality-based-clip shows are not that complicated. True-crime shows, in which people are caught by police, can show every face, except for innocent bystanders or people who have not signed waivers, which explains obscured faces. Footage that falls into the public domain, such as a drunk driver pulled over on a public highway, is fair game as well.

Last year’s ratings support observations that shows about cops, accidents, disasters, freaks and homemade silliness continue to perform best in the genre. According to Neilsen Media Research in New York, the most-watched reality-based titles over the broadcast season were National Geographic on Assignment (Warner Bros./Turner), AMW: America Fights Back (Fox), Cops (Fox), Real TV (Paramount/Premier), Wild Life Adventures (Warner Bros./Turner), Discovery’s Animal Planet (Eyemark Entertainment), Strange Universe (Rysher Entertainment) and Fire Rescue (Rysher Entertainment). On the variety side, America’s Funniest Home Videos and America’s Dumbest Criminals rank highly among u.s. viewers.

While popular reality-based shows outside of North America – especially the content hotbeds of the u.k. and Japan – face conversion to more Americanized versions if exported to u.s. markets, American shows face no alteration when they sell internationally.

North American producers work from the outset to create shows that will be more international in flavor, and non-u.s. buyers are drawn to programs that display American culture. As noted, the reverse is not yet true.

Steven Patscheck, senior manager of Latin America/ Iberia program sales for Discovery Channel, says Spanish-speaking markets are ‘very receptive’ to the programs he offers. ‘Latin American buyers have a pre-conceived idea about the high quality and content of Discovery programming,’ says Patscheck, who stresses that Discovery’s experiential programming is not as sensationalistic as other reality-based program providers.

Current-affairs shows are influenced by headlines and what’s trendy, he explains. For example, the 50-minute one-off, Supertwins: Triplets, Quads, and More, from Wall to Wall Television for Discovery, explores the phenomena of multiple births, from medical oddity to front-page news, the start of pregnancy to life in a supertwin household. As well, there’s Wild on the Set, 6 x 1 hours looking at the wranglers who train and handle performing animals, produced by Electric Sky and Moonbase Alpha for Animal Planet.

Other Discovery shows this year, Cinenova’s Shipwreck! and Matter Rivera Productions’ Slave Ship, exploit the success of historical features Titanic and Amistad.

On the post-Cold-War-fallout front, Associated Television rides the popularity of X-Files, the continued fascination with j.f.k. and the seamier side of life, with KGB UFO Files, Kennedy Files and Sex Files.

Distributor Spotlight: Alfred Haber Distribution

Picture a lunatic who steals a tank and terrorizes a town, smashing buildings and crushing cars, and is eventually gunned down by the police. Chances are you already have an image if you live in any of the major tv markets. You’ve probably seen footage in The World’s Scariest Police Chases.

The internationally successful 6 x 1 hours, which pulls together clips of police chases from around the globe, is made by Pursuit Productions and marketed by Alfred Haber Distribution. Installments aired in the u.s. on either Fox or cbs, depending on the episode.

Outside North America, episodes have regularly rated first or second in the weekly audience polls in every major market such as Britain, France, Australia and Japan, says Adam Haber. ‘People are drawn to the drama,’ he says. ‘Police pursuit shows have been pretty hot for the past eight months.’

Upcoming from Alfred Haber is Lie Detector, hosted by O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. The one-hour reality show will pit notorious personalities and their honesty against the polygraph. Produced by Mark Phillips Productions, guests include polygraph expert Edward Gelb, James Nichols, accused in the Oklahoma City bombing, Jeff Gillooly of Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding fame, Lou Albano and former LAPD detective Mark Furman.

Also see:

-Peek Show: The Brits and their taste for soap

-Reality Bites: Upcoming reality-based shows

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.