COVER

TRUE-TO-LIFE TV

REALISTIC SHOWS EARN TOP RATINGS

TOM FENNELL December 7 1992
COVER

TRUE-TO-LIFE TV

REALISTIC SHOWS EARN TOP RATINGS

TOM FENNELL December 7 1992

TRUE-TO-LIFE TV

REALISTIC SHOWS EARN TOP RATINGS

TOM FENNELL

On the set of Secret Service, a television crew was struggling to make sure that the program included a generous mix of two of TV’s recurring themes: murder and sex. In an episode scheduled to air on NBC in January, the crime is murder by insulin overdose, and the sex involves an affair between a minister and a woman in the church choir. In one scene shot on location in a Toronto church office, the pretty singer massages the minister’s shoulders as her choir robe falls away to reveal a scanty pink dress. Although the scene reflects much of current TV fare, Secret Service is actually part of a new type of programming, which the industry calls reality-based television, because the scripts are based on actual case histories. TV industry experts say that audiences enjoy such shows as Secret Service and Top Cops because the violent action carries an aura of real life. Said Kevin Gillis, vice-president and executive producer of Torontobased Skyvision Entertainment, which produces Secret Service : “God knows, the numbers show it. People will watch violence.”

COVER

reality of warfare into living rooms around the world with special impact. Grosso, a former Manhattan police detective, has had firsthand experience with on-the-street violence.

In 1972, he worked as a consultant on the movie The French Connection, which was based on a heroin-smuggling case that he helped to investigate. Grosso later moved into TV and says that he now is comfortable about recreating true crime stories. “There is a lot of violence in Top Cops,” said Grosso. “We try to show the heroism of police who do things you and I wouldn’t do.”

According to Gillis, economic forces are also driving the rapid growth of reality-based TV. With the number of channels growing steadily, revenues that the major networks once took for granted have declined steeply. At the same time, the rapidly expanding TV industry requires more programming. Industry experts said that an episode of reality-based TV provides relatively cheap and popular programming. According to Gillis, it can cost $1.5 million to produce an hour-long episode of Star Trek, while an hour of Top Cops costs about $800,000. Said Gillis: “There is such a propagation of media channels. You have to have something out there.”

Plunge: Cost-cutting techniques help to account for the lower costs of reality-based TV. According to Walter Klassen, a Toronto-based special-effects artist, some effects cost thousands of dollars to create, while others can be achieved quite cheaply. Klassen said that producers can buy an old car to plunge from a cliff for as little as $200, throats can be realistically cut for $10 and fake bullet holes placed on bodies for about the same price.

As TV becomes more sophisticated in its depiction of violence, some people involved in the industry say that they are increasingly repelled by what they see. Gordon Smith, a Toronto-based artist who created the special effects for Hollywood producer Oliver Stone’s JFK and Platoon, said that TV violence is insidious because it does not show the consequences of brutality. Smith said that on TV, the hero can shoot someone in the head, but the viewer is spared the depiction of the exploding skull. As a result, said Smith, some people may come to think that violence can be carried out without consequences. Said Smith: “If we really showed the full extent of violence, people wouldn’t watch it.” Still, the fact remains that shootouts win audiences, which means that the cold reality of economics will likely keep guns blazing on television screens for years to come.

The trend, in which TV

imitates the sometimes violent reality of life, has grown rapidly during the past four years. Reality-based shows, including Unsolved Mysteries, Top Cops and I Witness Video, earn top ratings. The fashion has spread to full-length dramas based on real events, including Toronto director Atom Egoyan’s Gross Misconduct, which chronicles the turbulent life and violent death of former Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player Brian Spencer. Encouraged by lower production costs and audience response, the wave is still gathering force. In fact, in addition to Secret Service, which is hosted by Steven Ford, the son of former U.S. president Gerald Ford, Skyvision has sold another new reality-based show, Heart of Courage, to 22 countries, while a third, Cold Warriors, will air soon on NBC.

Impact: Much of the new reality-based programming appears to be so real that it seems to duplicate the reallife scenes that appear on TV news shows. Sonny Grosso, the New York Citybased executive producer of Top Cops, which also is shot in Toronto, says that the reality format had its roots in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. During the war, TV carried the