Reality Television Producers as Puppeteers

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Do you have a disdain for reality television? Or more pointedly, the way it portrays women and women of color? Have you ever considered it isn’t the networks that deserve to be the main focus our ire?

Reality TV shows rub almost everyone the wrong way. Whether its industry insiders who lament the loss of writing and other production related jobs, or TV lovers who feel like their viewing options are now diminished to reality game shows, karaoke shows or housewives acting ornery. A 2010 poll by TiVo revealed viewers were tired of reality TV, with “40 percent calling reality the most overdone genre of programming.” A similar Pew Research poll found 63% of the public found the influx of reality TV shows to be a change for the worse.

Networks typically are slow moving behemoths of institutions that as a business model and path to sustained viability must put profits over people. They”unscripted” gems likey, So it’s easy to point the finger the way of the television executives first when it comes to reality TV storylines, cast member behavior and episodes whose misogynistic minstrelsy make us question why we even bother to tune in on a weekly basis in the first place.

Recently Married to Medicine cast member Quad Webb, in an interview with an Atlanta radio station insisted it’s not the producers, the networks or the reality stars themselves who are to blame, but the audiences of the shows. Viewers, according to Webb, want to see the weird, wild and the ratchet.

Webb is right in one respect. The consumer is queen (or king). As long as there is an audience to provide eyeballs, cable executives have nothing to lose – until the audience is sufficiently outraged enough to draw the proverbial line in the sand.  When black women and their lives are reduced to nothing more than racist spectacles, the community at large should be outraged. As slow moving as these institutions may be, networks can and have responded to viewer backlash, as evidenced by the swift cancelling of rapper Shawty Lo’s All My Babies Mamas slated for Lifetime and Mona Scott- Young’s Sorority Sisters, a proposed peek inside the lives of black women connected to Black Greek organizations, which was canned before it ever got a chance to air.  

But I digress.

Again, who deserves to be held accountable the total influx of reality shows on the air, including the troubling characters, behaviors and themes portrayed therein?

Black people of both sexes continue to fight diligently for control of how our culture is broadcast to the world. Yet ironically, many of the producers of the most egregious reality shows are Black. In the community’s mind, they are our talented tenth, those who were raised by the village, sent off into the world with the expectation that they would live lives of service and use their considerable experience and talent to give back and uplift those from where they came. Yet, not one single reality television producer was willing to attend a recent New York City Council hearing on alleged labor violations and led by Daneek Miller, chairman of the council's Civil Service and Labor Committee. 

The community wants to work in concert with producers, both from a labor perspective as they face scrutiny for alleged abuses of power behind the scenes, and with their desire to have a say in how their culture is depicted in front of the cameras.  Producers of top reality TV shows made themselves unavailable when the legality of their labor practices were in question, making it unlikely that they will take on any additional culpability when it comes to the very real psychosocial effects that occur to women and girls exposed to their distorted and destructive brand of entertainment.

When asked, some producers have shifted blame to the networks, saying that they are only giving the networks what they’re asking for based upon viewer ratings. Producers must create ROI for the network and stirring up a few on screen cat fights while simultaneously promoting violence and horrific racial stereotypes seems to work every time.

Truth in Reality is digging into this issue as we explore meaningful ways to alter the way women of color are portrayed on reality television shows. Rather than dismiss reality television and its massive power, we, along with organizations like Color of Change, countless women’s studies departments and advocacy groups across the country are calling for more thought, accountability, and diversity in producer and network programming decisions.

Isn’t it high time that we do more than react?  Isn’t it time for us to collectively demand that producers change their storylines?

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