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Shales on TV Live: Reality TV at the Emmy Awards

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Aug. 24, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: Tom Shales on the reality TV revolution at the Emmys

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Hello and welcome or welcome back as the case may be. We may have a SHORT session today because of, um, technical considerations ... Anyway this "chewy" granola bar I am chomping on is about as chewy as Plymouth Rock. Have you tried those General Mills Cereal Bars, Cheerios and Cinnamon something-or-others? DELICIOUS so of course, you can't find them in any supermarket, not if you search for days. I do NOT understand the tenets of marketing in this country. Everything I look for at the supermarket is sold-out or just out of stock. I think maybe I should switch to doing just a plain "Angry Old Crank" column. But with TV, there's always something to be angry about. And this weekend it'll be the Emmys. Onward... I hope.....

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Albany, N.Y.: This is just a note to thank you for recommending "The Box," Jeff Kisselloff's fine oral history about the early days of TV. It really captures that moment when television wasn't a commercial product and creativity and excellence, rather than ratings and subservience to sponsors and dollars, were rewarded. I'm almost finished with the book, though, and hope you can recommend another good book about television history.

Tom Shales: Why thank YOU, Mr. Kisselloff! Ha Ha. Just joshing. Yes it is a wonderful book. I've never read it straight through but have probably read the whole thing 10 times just from picking it up and plunging in -- the whole mad history of television in its many roles and facets. Another book? Oh what a straight line! Naturally I ought to mention "Live from New York," the bubbly oral history of Saturday Night Live that I wrote with James Miller. But I'll be classy and NOT mention it. I can't think of other great TV books of recent vintage but will try to have a couple titles next week.

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Next big thing?: You've seen many different TV eras. While reality shows are now all the rage, at other times it was cowboy shows, sitcoms, the innovation of made-for-TV dramas, game shows, etc., etc. Do you see anything on the horizon that will make us sit up and notice a new phase in our interaction with television set?

Tom Shales: So many things. TOO many things, if you ask me. Even 3-D lends itself to a more inter-active feeling, tho not to a degree implied by ads for the first of the old-fashioned 3-D movies, "Bwana Devil," released in the early fifties. Ads promised the audience "A Lion In Your Lap!" Okay, if that's your idea of fun. Meanwhile manufacturers are cranking out TV's with internet-surfing capabilities - the merging of the two media (mediums?) was absolutely inevitable and now is closer than ever - but what will that mean? Probably something scary.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

How awful was that Hasselhoff roast? More to the point, have you noticed how those roasts are getting steadily worse and worse with smaller and smaller groups of speakers besides the small cadre of stand-ups?

What a shame too, because I thought Pam Anderson was the funniest, most interesting one of them all. I'd rather hear her tell a joke than hear Jeff Ross tell one any day of the week (and I think Jeff is really funny). I'd much rather have heard from the actor who did KITT's voice, some of the other lifeguards, etc.

Tom Shales: Success has apparently spoiled them. Apparently they (Comedy Central) stopped showing the un-censored roasts in the middle of the night. Whoa, the language on those things was bluer than blue; it was purple. Somehow the dirtier they are, even the more gratuitously dirty, the funnier they are in a stupid, Neanderthal way. I am NOT advocating dirty jokes on TV, however; that would be bad, especially on a basic-cable channel like Comedy Central, which some cable subscribers may receive without even knowing about it.

Thanks.

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Low Blood Sug, Ark.: Tom, try Nature's Harvest Chewy bars. They've saved many of my colleagues from my late-morning low blood sugar. It's easy to get the right ones if you look for the word "chewy" on the box.

Also, you should be able to gain access to the "trade-only" Johnny Carson tapes, since you're an important figure in the TV business and all.

Tom Shales: Let's leave my figure out of this. Ahem. (Did you see the guy on The Today Show plugging his book "I'm with Fatty"? Why didn't I write that book? The author lost a pound a week for 50 weeks and turned that into an apparent bestseller as well. But thanks for the top on the "chewy" bars, though I'm usually resistant to anything with "nature" on the package. The ones I am suffering thru at the moment are Quaker. Granola is fattening, by the way; it's no healthy food.

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Dr. Mr. Crank: Were you surprised at the level of vitriol directed at your for your column on Amanpour's debut at This Week? I thought it was bizarre, especially since I thought you hit the nail on the head. You are paid to have opinions, after all, like any good columnist.

I was disappointed especially in how Romenesko at Poynter's Media News seemed to link to as many articles critical of you as he could find, while ignoring any that were in support. As a former reporter and editor, I thought this was very unprofessional of him. But I find that he often "stacks" the deck, depending on the political leanings of the issue at hand. Did you have any reaction?

Tom Shales: Did I have any reaction -- to being called an "idiot" and a "moron" and even, a word I'd never use, a "faggot" (the person who used that one said he was gay so entitled to use it - how's that for logic). The reactions called ME "vicious" and yet nothing in the columns on Amanpour was one-eighth as nasty as many of those letters from anonymous, tomato-throwing nut-cases. How they got so worked up, I don't know, though one pair of writers noted in small type at the end of their roast of me that they are indeed friends of Ms. Amanpour. I never said she indicated sympathy for the Taliban, incidentally, nor did I claim that she --oh never mind. I just want it to go away, since you can't debate people whose argument is "you stink." It seems enraged liberals can be just as berserk as furious conservatives. I was impressed -- and not just because they spared me the lash -- by people who wrote to the attacking web sites to point out that they were being as unfair and vituperative as they accused me of being, only more so. One reader said he didn't agree with all that I wrote but couldn't condone the kind of hate-mail that the web sites were printing either. Thanks for asking, and for noticing that "level of vitriol."

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Love the Summer Shows: Tom, I really do love the lighter summer shows and am sorry their seasons are coming to an end. Drop Dead Diva, Leverage and White Collar are my must-see shows, and wasn't the latest episode of Leverage (the Rashomon Job) amazing? I also really enjoy The Glades, which is a little more serious as it's about murder, but the star, Matt Passmore, has a lot of charm and a lighthearted way about him -- almost like a young Lennie Briscoe! Rizzoli and Isles is also entertaining, especially with D-Day from Animal House. I'm sorry to see summer (television) end.

Tom Shales: Wow. There's a letter that likely wouldn't have been written ten or fifteen years ago. Summer Television was something to be ducked, like a thrown rock, not watched and applauded. But TV operates on year-round seasons now. Of course if you go way WAY back, summers were duller but shorter. Producers of weekly shows would turn out an amazing 39 episodes, leaving only 13 (?) weeks for reruns or summer fare so "light" that it barely stuck to the screen. The economy of TV has changed; that's the simple explanation.

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Reality TV: When did that term for unscripted TV (often basically elaborate quiz shows) first come into widespread use? I remember quiz shows from years ago that had contestants participating in stunts outside of the studio. Were these reality shows?

Tom Shales: I think the term reality TV was ushered in with "Survivor," the big CBS hit, but can't be sure. Many people cite the PBS series "An American Family" as the dawnbreaker of Reality TV but that was a long time ago - there's quite a huge interval between that series and "Survivor". The quiz shows that "had contestants participating in stunts outside of the studio" -- I don't know which titles you mean there. Quiz shows fell into disgrace in the '50s and '60s and stayed away for quite a while. Wasn't "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" the first quiz-show hit in a lonnnng time? George Schlatter of "Laugh-In" fame did what might be called a reality show way back in the '70s (I think): "Real People," but it took place largely in a TV studio. And so on. Somebody will write (or has written) a book to set the record straight.....

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Phoenix, Ariz.: As the migration to Internet delivery of entertainment to our home television sets begins are we going to see the end of free TV? Will we be asked to pay for everything we want to watch? Are the networks going to say the heck with local affiliates and start delivering their programs directly to us consumers?

Tom Shales: Those questions have grim implications, don't they? I can't answer them, of course, except with guesses. The future of local affiliates seems to me not as endangered as you state. Local stations make their money on local news more than on network programming they pass along; more affiliates might go all-news and become sort of localized CNN's, with supplemental stuff on the web as now. Thank you, Phoenix....

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Annapolis, Md.: Re "the f-word": I suppose the logic is, since only black people can use the n-word, only gay people can use the f-word. Apparently, stupid people can use any word they want.

Tom Shales: Apparently, my Annapolis friend. At first I visualized a different "f" word than you meant. That shorter "f" word is sneaking its way onto television more and more often, if anybody cares. There are several sound-alike versions of it that, if you're not paying close attention, sound a great deal like the "real" thing. I've always been a free-speech type, and even liberated my college paper from old restrictions re language, but it's sad to see ALL the old values and standards crumbling.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Great column on "reality TV," which is almost a contradiction in itself. I well remember watching the first "Survivor" for about 5 minutes, thinking "this is stupid, it'll never last," and never watching again. My sense of what will succeed, of course, was as wrong as ever. I remember the late comic Sam Kinnison commenting about some show showing a malnourished child "Couldn't they at least give the kid an sandwich?" Sam was over the top, but I miss him.

Tom Shales: I think Sam Kinison was the most ourageous and original comic of his generation - and the generations before and after his. I am proud to have been quoted in Sam's brother's book about him and his crazed art. As for the reality shows, it's a genre now like sitcoms and I don't see it going away completely, although Westerns pretty much did (kids don't believe how many Westerns used to air in prime time every week). I thought "reality" would be brought down or done in by scandals, but they've had their scandals and no one seems to care - certainly not the loyal reality-show audience.

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Morristown, N.J.: Hey Tom,

I get all the publicity surrounding Modern Family -- great cast, great writing, it's very funny. However, it is a bit discouraging that its poor relation, The Middle, gets lost in all the noise. Never mentioned in "Fall TV Preview" magazine articles, not nominated for any Emmys. It, too, has a great cast and very good writing, but is virtually ignored. What gives? It's time to give The Middle its props!

Tom Shales: Good point, Morristown, N.J.! Are you near Princeton, by the way? And why don't they have self-service gas stations in your lovely state? Oh never mind - that's really a question for another chatter. I'm sure the cast and creators of "Middle" would be very grateful for your recommendation. I don't see the show having the cleverness and zip of "Modern Family" but it's certainly a compatible good neighbor and you're right, attention should be paid to such a show.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there any reason whatsoever that we should care about the Emmy Awards? Will anyone even remember one week later what all the ridiculous categories were, much less who won them? What's the point of this drivel?

Tom Shales: Well, now, let's not be hasty. The point of this drivel is to fill three hours or a little more with indifferent entertainment that serves as an appropriate setting for all the commercials that will air during the telecast. And really, don't you think that since the Emmys have been going on this long, they might as well continue? There's still nothing with as much clout for rewarding excellence in television. I think really that the Academy Awards will be worse than the Emmys this year because television programs approach serious subjects more seriously than the movies are doing these days.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thanks as always for another entertaining session. Speaking of the Emmys, don't you think Angela Lansbury deserves one just because? I mean really, 35 nominations or something like that and no wins. Shameful.

Tom Shales: She never won? That's absurd. It became a running joke, I guess, like Susan Lucci. Jason Alexander never won for playing George on "Seinfeld." Now George was a fool, an egomaniac, an underachiever and a selfish brat; playing such a character and making him less than despicable was a real achievement. Jason Alexander should have been Emmified. But then I don't think Jackie Gleason ever won, either, did he? It's a pretty shoddy record of recognition. One thing that drives me batty is giving the Academy Awards an Emmy nearly every year for best special - and in recent years, I think even the Emmys have been nominated in that Emmy category. Talk about gall!

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Rockville, Md.: I disagreed with your take on Christane Amanpour, but that does not justify the vulgar name calling you received. However, it did seem that your dislike of her was personal-- from your take when she was first announced to your review of her first show. It seem small- minded and petty. Another topic -- Jimmy Fallon. I can only hope his monologue is something like his MTV awards show -- he is very talented musically. Did you see his Rainbow Man song done as Neil Young? Priceless.

Tom Shales: Maybe some of the "personal" criticism of Ms Amanpour came off badly, but I have always used ridicule as a way of dealing with the gigantic egos of Television Land. And by ridicule I do not mean just flinging epithets around. It was a very clever headline writer, not yours truly, who came up with "Gunga Dan" to describe a Dan Rather foray into Afghanistan many years back; I had written that Rather in mufti looked like an extra from Gunga Din and the headline writer took it from there. I see a considerable difference between that kind of ridicule (which Rather took well, in fact, and said he found funny) and just picking a nasty word out of a grab-bag. The point of "Gunga Dan" was not to inflict as much injury on Rather as possible, either. There was no meanness in it.

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UHF: Hey Cranky Old Man -- Are you angling to take over for Andy Rooney on 60 minutes? My real question -- have you gotten around to watching Mad Men yet? Lots of vintage TV clips, usually in the background though. This past week Don Draper's pre-pubescent daughter got into big trouble after, shall we say, having too much fun watching Man from U.N.C.L.E. Priceless.

Tom Shales: Oh darn, I wish I'd seen that. I've got to try to remember when the heck it's on. Speaking of vintage TV; if you have a digital set or adapter, you might want to check out Channel 7.3 or 7.4 or one of the subsidiary "sevens." They fill empty hours in infomercials, yes, but also with something called Retro TV Network - ancient episodes of such shows as "The Cisco Kid" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and many many more. The shows seem to run full length, not mutilated, with even the theme music intact! Amazing.

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Finally -- Israel gets serious about this scourge!: "Keshet, one of the two franchisees of Channel 2, exceeded the amount of reality show broadcasts allowed each week and will be fined with the loss of 37 minutes of advertising time, according to an announcement by the Second Television Authority, which oversees commercial television in Israel.

The fine is unusually high and is one of the most severe sanctions to have been imposed on a commercial channel in Israel. It was given in response to a significant deviation during June and July in the broadcasting of the talent reality show "A Star is Born."

Tom Shales: You coulda knocked me over with a feather. Actually, I may just fall over and not need any knocking at all. I can't say I am crazy about their remedy for the ailment -- a government body deciding how much time can be allotted to this or that genre or format. Not what we'd tolerate here in the Land of the Free (or at least Generously Marked-Down).

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The Middle: Tom, I love Modern Family but don't care for The Middle at all. They are very blue collar (one reason I never liked Roseanne) and the kids are unattractive. I really don't care for them at all. I would enjoy being friends with the MF gang, but I have no desire to interact with the people from Indiana.

Tom Shales: My such snobbery. David Letterman is from Indiana. So was Cole Porter of all people. I'm from Illinois but I don't offer myself up as a fine example of sophistication. Still, blue collar comedies are kind of hard to kill, like BEDBUGS (aaaaagggghhhh!!!!!!) and CBS has a new one in the fall about two blue-collar fatties. Yet! Speaking of Bed Bugs, could the networks be going just a wee bit overboard on this? The Today Show had a piece this morning about the terrible shame and guilt felt by the bed-bugged; well if they didn't feel shame and guilt before that piece aired, they sure would have after. Attention baby-boomers: Did your mom or dad ever tuck you in with "Good night, sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite"? Mine did. Now I know what she was talking about......

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Las Vegas, Nev.: Tom: Enjoy your column every week and your sense of humor. Regarding reality programs, you may have to go back to "Candid Camera" which started as "Candid Microphone" on radio before making the switch to television starting in the late 1940s). That program, it seems to me, was the earliest form of using real people as the basis for entertainment. Take that, "Survivor"!

Tom Shales: Yes, I've mentioned those shows -- "People Are Funny," there was a bottom-dweller) as antecedents to reality competitions before. You can see these shows recreated sometimes in movies from the late '30s and '40s. In one of their pictures, Abbott and Costello try to win money on a radio quiz but can't get through on the phone line. Anyway, thank you Las Vegas and everyone else who checked in on this dog-day of October. What can I say, besides thank you, but good-night, sleep tight, and you know the rest........

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