Melissa, thanks for visiting Clara54’s writers forum. Your body of work is so amazing. I’m just going to introduce you as an emmy-award winning bestselling writer, filmmaker, producer and author. Please share some of your fascinating career highlights with us.
I feel that (so far) I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a varied and interesting career, though really, I see myself as more of an average worker bee in the industry than someone special. Of course I’d like to change that – and still have quite a “bucket list” of dreams and dream projects I’d like to create – but as you can probably guess from my novel, most ‘Reality TV’ isn’t on that list!
Looking back to these 25 plus years, I’d say I’m most proud of the longform documentary film projects I did with my mentor Arnold Shapiro (model for the “Marty Maltzman” character in Reality Boulevard), including Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse, hosted by Oprah Winfrey, which was simulcast on three networks and was, at the time, the most-watched television documentary in history. Break the Silence the follow-up, is another ASP project of which I’m very proud. I am also still immensely proud of my mini-series for A&E on the Titanic, which won two Emmy’s in 1995. Then of course, White Irish Drinkers, the indie feature film written and directed by my husband John Gray, which I produced (with Paul Bernard and Jim Scura) in 2010. We did it for $600,000 in 17 days and it’s a true indie gem.
You referenced your writing as “cathartic” and I’m sure many writers can agree on how freeing the creative process can be. What’s it like for you ,being ‘in the zone’ so to speak?
When I was in college, I wrote a lot of fiction and poetry and was so frequently ‘in the zone’ that my favorite place to write was the busy student union…because somehow the act of shutting out all the noise around me made my focus even stronger. I went many years without writing my own fiction (with the exception of a handful of dramatic scripts, only a few of which ever went anywhere.) Writing non-fiction books and television was a different, more intellectual process. Now that I am writing my own fiction again, I am so pleased to be back in that place – ‘the zone’ as you say – that I remember. It is amazing, how the characters speak through you and lead you down paths you never expected to go. In a few places in Reality Boulevard, characters would open their mouths and teach me lessons about myself and my life that I really needed to learn. That’s what writing is all about – it comes through you, from somewhere else (I’m a Jungian at heart and the collective unconscious describes a very real place for me) and your perceptions, history, and craft are the conduit. It’s a near magical experience. Of course, some days, it’s just a slog. But you have to do the slog days to get to the magic days.
Let’s talk about this exciting new novel! Tell us about Reality Boulevard.
Thank you! Reality Boulevard is set in present-day Hollywood, and its premise is a long-running, 16-year award-winning show about heroic first responders, cops, doctors, etc. called Lights and Sirens (for fun, drop in at http://www.lightsnsirensprod.com !) is unexpectedly and unceremoniously bumped off the air by an ambitious, recently-hired network executive (who would secretly like cancel all drama shows too, and turn her flagging broadcast network into all reality, all the time). Lights and Sirens producer, the quirky, loveable, Oscar-winning documentarian Marty Maltzman, and his loyal staff and crew suddenly find themselves out in the street in a world filled with Kardashians, Real Housewives and Survivors. The novel is about how they cope with this crass new Hollywood, and follows a number of different, colorful characters as they try and reconcile their dreams and idealism with what they must do to survive in a business that is (and has always been) ever-changing.
Reality Boulevard reads like a satire and many readers have called it “laugh out loud hilarious,” but the truth is, I wasn’t thinking “comedy” when I wrote it! Unfortunately much of it is more deadpan truism than satire. But I’ve been in that world a long time and truly, it satirizes itself. There are days when you feel like you’re living in an outlandish satire. Without a sense of humor about the absurd, it would be impossible to survive it!
Although your novel is fiction, I’m frankly embarrassed with some of the disturbing behaviors seen on these shows. Being a black woman and a celebrity blogger, I do call out ugly behaviors at my entertainment site. Is the stereotypical aspect of reality television a big part of executive behind the scenes decision making? Do you think viewers have become desentsitized to what they see on reality tv and how their children might also be affected?
I’ve been around the business a long time and have watched as, slowly, non-fiction/documentary television morphed into what we know today as Reality TV. It has been a gradual process, starting in the 90’s and really exploding on network with the arrival of Survivor in May of 2000. My stepdaughter and her friends were born in 1993 and watching their reaction to shows like The Hills and The Bachelor made me realize, these girls have never known a world without reality TV! I believe it has strongly colored their perceptions toward the world and not for the better. In fact, the Girl Scouts did a study on the effect of regular Reality TV viewing on 1100 girls. http://blog.girlscouts.org/2011/10/new-girl-scouts-research-exposes-impact.html A few of the results of the study showed some positive effects in the areas of leadership and ambition. But to my mind, many more of the results are quite frightening. The girls who watched more reality TV showed a markedly higher belief in the importance of physical appearance (like we women need more of that!), the idea that women have to outdo one another for a man’s attention, and that backstabbing and manipulation were viable life strategies for success – the normalization of the ‘mean girl’ stereotype.
The stereotypes perpetuated on Reality TV, when taken as a whole, are equally as disturbing. As a black woman, you have every right to be enraged! The racial stereotypes in reality TV (“Flavor of Love”; “Basketball Wives,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta.”) are appalling. The gender stereotypes are equally dangerous and I believe the Girl Scout study is the tip of the iceberg as to the subliminal damage they do to young women who are just beginning to develop their grown-up identities. An outstanding and very readable academic analysis of this can be found in Jennifer Pozner’s outstanding and impeccably researched book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.” ( http://www.realitybitesbackbook.com )
Sadly, Reality TV could not exist without stereotypes. You see, it’s mostly not real. (I’m not talking about real docu-style shows or shows with reality-based formats like Hoarders, The Dog Whisperer, Intervention, Beyond Scared Straight, etc. here – there are still people who are trying to make redeeming TV. I’m talking about the average docu soap and many contest shows) The shows are conceived and greenlit in a cynical, reactive kind of way based on trying to capitalize on or outdo the success of what came before (although to be fair, all TV, film, theater, commercial art and publishing contains an element of this.) The “cast” – who are cast in much the same way a dramatic project is cast – are often wanna-be actors or even simply wanna-be celebs who don’t want to do the work to actually learn something for which to be famous. They just want to be famous – end of story. Their greatest talent is the ability to play and to improv a larger-than-life aspect of themselves that fits into a stereotypical niche. What most people don’t know is, much reality TV is actually what’s called “Soft-Scripted” – an absurd moniker if I’ve ever heard one! “Soft-Scripted” means that the situations, scenes, conflicts – even lines, from time to time (I know an agent of one of the top and most successful reality docu-soap TV ‘stars’ who dutifully passed on a full script to his client every week) are ‘written’ by someone who, for union reasons, can’t be called a ‘writer’, so he or she is called a “series editor” or “story producer,” or other bland title like that, that won’t alert the Writers Guild that something fishy is going on. It’s paint-by-numbers, lowest-common-denominator drama – if you can call it drama – but it’s very deliberately planned out. Then there are the on-scene “directors” – like writers, they are often simply called segment producers or field producers so the Directors Guild doesn’t get upset – who use any and every technique possible to create conflict and drama among the characters. This could include passing along rumors, to giving the participants alcohol (there’s a lot of that), to forcing the participants into dicey situations. There is enormous pressure on these field producers to bring back heightened spectacle for every episode. And enormous pressure on the editors and post-production producers to heighten that drama and conflict even more in the editing process.
I don’t want to come off as a crusader against reality TV because I’m not. I like being entertained by silly things and guilty pleasures, just like anyone. Television is an ever-changing business and there’s no point in railing against change. The genre itself will evolve like anything else, and maybe it’ll even die a natural death some day. In the meantime, a lot of people seem to love it.
What I want to do is shine a light on an aspect of reality TV that is unsavory and in my opinion, potentially harmful. For instance: I’d say to parents, don’t let your daughters sit and watch the Kardashians on their own. Use it as a teaching moment to discuss superficiality and materialism and let your children know that these situations are about as real as their school musical. When watching shows like Survivor, ask your kids questions about backstabbing behavior, forming factions, etc. as ways to win. What do they really win? (Look up the “where are they now” features about past winners and you’ll see how hollow their victories.) And I think discussing the concepts of fame and celebrity with your kids is important too, because many in this generation truly believe in the Andy Warhol edict – that it is their birthright to be famous. This can be dangerous, because often ‘anything goes’ in this quest (case in point: Tila Tequila). Help your kids develop other role models who actually have a true gift, a skill, an ability or a talent which they’ve honed through hard work.
In the film Iron Lady, Meryl Streep (a great role model for actors!) says, “Today, all everyone wants is to be somebody. In my day, we wanted to do something.” Teach your kids the difference between these two concepts, and reality TV will be far less harmful to them.
What is the reaction from inside the industry, now that you’ve given the world, Reality Boulevard?
My mentor, Arnold Shapiro, loved it, which is what mattered to me most. I know plenty of people who might not be happy about the portrait I paint in the book, but the novel makes a huge point of defending the worker bees in the business – the producers/field producers/story producers/whatever, the editors, the crews – because they too are victims of the market. People have to work, have to feed their families – especially in this economy – and they have to take the work that’s out there. One outcome from the book is, I’ve received lots of private communications from people around my age with years and years in the business, who are paying mortgages and putting kids through college and although the business was quite different when we all started out in the ‘80’s, they aren’t in any position to change career directions at this point in life. Some are indeed upset by and ashamed of some of the work they do, but they still have to put food on the table.
I also wanted people reading the novel to understand that the majority of people who work in the film/television industry are not rich by any toss of the coin. What outsiders call “Hollywood” is mostly peopled by a huge group of middle class workers – creative people and technical people – who work insanely long hours with incredible dedication, for fair but not excessive wages. Without union protection, most have to pay their own (and their kids’) health insurance premiums. They also work from project to project. When a show is cancelled, they have to find a new job. Reality TV has lowered wages across the board, so they’re not only creative victims, they’re financial victims as well.
Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?
My book is only available in eBook at the moment, through Apostrophe Books http://www.apostrophebooks.com – through Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and hopefully B&N soon if Nook gets its act together! You can also visit my author website at http://www.melissajopeltier.com.
Melissa, it was such a pleasure, having you here. I can’t wait until my readers and your new fans weigh in!
It’s been a pleasure; you ask great questions!
Did you guys enjoy the interview with Melissa? What’s your take on Reality TV?