What's wrong with reality TV? A roundtable talk -- ''Bernie Mac'''s Larry Wilmore, ''Smallville'''s Brian Robbins, and four other honchos discuss the problems ''Joe Millionaire'' and its ilk have created for their scripted shows

By Lynette Rice
Updated March 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Evan Marriott Illustration by Mark Fredrickson

By the time you finish reading this article, chances are a network will have entertained at least one reality-show pitch. CBS and The WB each receive a minimum of five a day; Fox and ABC, more like 10. NBC hears 15 pitches a day by phone and gets unsolicited ideas from employees of its parent General Electric. (That’s fine and all, as long as NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker isn’t advising GE on turbine operation.)

They’ll take all the pitches they can get, because these days, to be blunt, reality rules. By May, a record 25 non-scripted series will have aired on the broadcast networks this season; 17 more are set to debut this summer (yes, another record). Just last month more history was made: Fox rode the broad shoulders of ”Joe Millionaire” (and the slightly less imposing ones of Simon Cowell) to win its first sweeps month ever among young adults.

So what does this mean for those folks whose shows still use, you know, scripts? Put simply, ”Joe” blows. They’re at once envious (of the freedom bestowed on reality producers) and discouraged (after all, no scripted writer really got into the business to create something like ”All American Idol’s Amazing Race to Meet My Folks”).

We assembled a group of TV titans to vent about life under siege, and vent they do: ”George Lopez” and ”Drew Carey” cocreator Bruce Helford talks about the difficulties of developing a new sitcom with comedian Wanda Sykes in a reality-saturated environment. ”Party of Five” creator Christopher Keyser and ”Smallville” executive producer Brian Robbins speak on the challenges of selling TV networks on the idea of an old-style nighttime soap. ”Bernie Mac” topper Larry Wilmore shares some provocative stories about Fox’s treatment of his award-winning show. ”Reality junkie” Yvette Lee Bowser, exec producer of ”Living Single” and now UPN’s ”Half & Half,” discusses changing the way women are portrayed in ”reality.” And Hollywood elder Marshall Herskovitz reminds us that all programming trends are cyclical. (Remember game shows?)

In the frank discussion that follows, the producers acknowledge the power of the behemoth with remarkably little fear or hype. Okay, so one of our panelists calls reality shows ”the end of Western civilization.” But he’s being facetious — sort of.

EW First off, are there any reality shows you’d admit to watching?

LARRY WILMORE ”American Idol.”

EW And what do you like about that show?

WILMORE It’s like watching a car wreck…. You just can’t take your eyes off of it. It’s the drama of it…because there’s so much cruelty and tearing people apart. I feel like I need to take a shower when I watch that.

MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ The only one of these I’ve ever watched was ”Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” because somebody called me on the phone and said, ”Turn on Fox. You have to see this.” And it was like watching the end of Western civilization. There was something so primitive and upsetting and fascinating about it.