Why a reality show with no network, producer, format, and/or footage is not a reality show

About 11 years in to the modern era of reality TV, there are a lot of reality shows on the air. There are also many, many more shows being developed at networks and production companies. And there are a lot of series that are no more than an idea in search of actualization and attention–attention the media gladly gives them, while making a much bigger deal out of something than they should.

Yesterday, TMZ reported that “Ted ‘Golden Voice’ Williams has inked a deal to star in his very own reality show — and he will begin shooting in two weeks;” Second Chances at Life “will document how Mr. ‘Golden Voice’ went from a promising radio career to living on the streets … to becoming a YouTube sensation. The series will also follow Ted’s life as he battles to rebuild his career and personal life.”

Now there are a ton of stories whose headlines and bodies say he has a reality show. He does not–at least not yet, even if he’s signed a contract.

There are a number of important details that are conspicuously absent from TMZ’s story: A network, an episode order, a production company, or even a producer. It’s possible that those things are absent here because TMZ doesn’t actually care about including relevant information. But also likely is that, like many other shows in search of a network, the show is not yet that far along in the process–if it’s even begun the process beyond coming up with an idea.

As far as I’m concerned, unless a network has actually ordered episodes of a series, someone does not have a reality show. They don’t even have a show if they’ve actually filmed a pilot for a network; witness Lauren Conrad’s new show being dumped by MTV. If you can be rejected at that level and that stage in the process, someone especially doesn’t have a reality show if they’ve uploaded some footage to YouTube.

Don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely nothing against people who have an idea for a reality show and seek publicity in order to attract the attention of producers and/or networks. If it’s a good idea, awesome. They may have a pilot presentation that they’re pitching to networks, and that could be a story. The pedigree of the producer attached to a project may be news by itself, although even that isn’t a guarantee of anything. (Remember Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s The Runner?)

Mostly, this is a critique of the media’s laziness, reporting one thing as another. An idea isn’t necessarily news. It’s like someone bought eggs and the media reported that the person made a souffle. There are a lot of steps that have to come first. Sometimes, stages in that process can make for interesting stories (watch the Canadian Jersey Shore trailer for a good example), but they should be reported for what they are. Worst of all is when people flip out over this kind of story when, in reality, the proposed show will never, ever happen. I’m sure that, in the 10.5 years of writing reality blurred, I’ve probably had those kinds of reactions to news stories about proposed series, but I’ve become a little more critical in my old age.

It’s a long and intense process to get something on the air (a book coming out later this year by Troy DeVolld will detail that process for people who want to know exactly how to pitch a reality series), and we shouldn’t short change the intense amount of work it takes to produce even the shittiest of shows. But we also shouldn’t just automatically give someone attention without at least acknowledging what we’re doing.

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