In 1948, a new television show burst onto the American scene. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the producer, Allen Funt, struggled with network censors and sponsors who were picky about what they thought was and wasn't appropriate for the small screen. And yet Funt's Candid Camera became the first and longest-running comedy show to document "unexpected elements of human behavior"; in many ways, it pioneered the genre we now label "reality TV."
And today's reality TV, as you know, is not without its own critics.
"There's always this hand-wringing in Hollywood ... that 'reality' is ruining television," says Los Angeles director-producer Becky Smith, who was nominated for an Emmy in 2004 for her work on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
But she adds that there will always be a draw because, as with Candid Camera 60 years ago, people like to watch other ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
To the 52-year-old Smith, reality TV is really "an amalgamation of three things," and she believes the most successful shows in this genre incorporate all three at once.
"It's part documentary, part fiction and part game show," she says.
As a reality TV director, Smith must capture images spontaneously, like a documentary filmmaker. She also has to be constantly aware of what various people are doing and who is important to the overall story.
The "part fiction" involves identifying the hero, or protagonist of that story: What does he or she really want, and what are his or her obstacles to getting it?
And as for the game show part: "The most compelling [piece] in reality television," Smith says, "is if there's something to be won or lost during the process of the show."
The prize can vary from cold, hard cash to an employment contract to an individual's self-esteem. In a show like Project Runway whose Season 5 finale Smith can't wait to see the prize may combine all three.
While Smith has worked on reality TV shows like Queer Eye, Lifetime's How to Look Good Naked and MTV's Parental Control, she's also a University of California film professor and a filmmaker, currently in post-production on a romantic comedy, 16 to Life.
The self-described workaholic has made a name for herself in documentary, too. A piece about Title IX (the 1972 national education amendment), In the Game, won numerous awards, including Best Television Documentary of the Year from American Women in Radio and Television. Her newest documentary, The Daring Project, about five former principal ballerinas, will premiere at Colorado College this weekend.
Smith says people mistakenly believe that there's a purity to documentary. That, as compared to "reality TV," documentary is just the truth.
"Every time you turn on the camera and choose an angle, you're choosing a story," she notes. "If you just turn a camera on people, that is not inherently exciting."
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