Shows May Be ‘Staged,’ but Not ‘Unscripted’

Joan Owens-Meyerson writes, produces and directs nonfiction television programming. She is co-chair of the Writers Guild's nonfiction writers steering committee

I applaud The Times for its attempt to correct the mislabeling of television programs lumped into that messy category called “reality” (“Time to Be Honest About ‘Reality’ Series,” by Brian Lowry, Feb. 21). But the decision to call them “staged, unscripted” shows instead is not a satisfying solution.

The first part is right: Shows such as “Survivor” and “Temptation Island” are certainly “staged.” But using the term “unscripted” to refer to that genre, as well as to shows such as “When Animals Attack,” is more misleading than ever.

I write nonfiction television programs. I also produce and direct them, and I know that any good film--nonfiction or otherwise--begins with the story. We nonfiction TV writers script our stories using real people and situations; our job is to create a compelling story out of that reality without compromising the truth. (That’s why I don’t like the term “informational” either. It implies that we’re simply cataloging facts with no structure or point of view. But that’s another story.)

Nowadays, hardly a nonfiction filmmaker I know goes into the field without at least a shooting outline, or into the editing bay without an editing script. A nonfiction program may or may not have narration, but a writer constructs its story--and its script--from all the filmmaking tools available to him or her. In addition to words, that means images, selected interviews, cinema verite and even reenactments.


As for “Survivor"- or “Temptation Island"-type shows: As “staged” entertainment, doesn’t that imply the presence of a script? Does anyone actually believe that the host faces the camera and improvises what he says as he goes along? If games or stunts are performed on these shows, that means someone thought them up and wrote them down in advance, which sure sounds like a “script” to me. Besides, when the footage is gathered, it is then heavily edited and structured into some kind of story.

Unfortunately, the person who writes this kind of script may not be credited as a writer. That’s because many production companies don’t want to become signatories to the Writers Guild of America contract. But these nonfiction writers--whether they write documentaries, reality, staged or game shows--can be covered. A number of them already are, and currently the WGA is working hard to protect the rights of even more nonfiction writers.

I’ll be honest. The “Survivor"-type shows are not my cup of tea. I certainly don’t write them. But other writers do. They should get credit as writers. When I go to the movies, I may have a preference between the writing of “Traffic” and “Dude, Where’s My Car?,” but the fact is they were both scripted before they were made into films. And it’s the same for nonfiction, staged or reality programs.

As Lowry paraphrased George Carlin, the words one chooses do convey meaning and value. Nonfiction writers have been unfairly neglected and devalued for too long. The growing popularity of “alternative” programming (another misleading term) hasn’t occurred just because networks prefer the lower budgets; it’s because these shows got ratings. Like them or not, the shows are involving, dramatic and compelling stories. Scripted stories.


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