‘Reality’ TV Eagerly Marches Off to War

Desperate to attract viewers to what is fast
becoming a struggling genre, networks and
producers of so-called reality television have
seized on a new concept: heartwarming stories
from the front lines of the war on terrorism. The
agreement with the Hollywood producers comes after
five months of acrimony between the Pentagon and
news organizations over the strictest rules the
military has ever imposed on news coverage.

2002.02.22


Call it "When Reality TV Goes
Patriotic."


Desperate to attract viewers to what is fast
becoming a struggling genre, networks and
producers of so-called reality television have
seized on a new concept: heartwarming stories
from the front lines of the war on terrorism.


But the Pentagon’s decision to allow coveted war
access to entertainment producers in order to
promote its war effort is raising eyebrows among
observers who worry the shows will be propaganda.
On one project, the Pentagon is actively involved
with developing story lines.


There are also concerns from news organizations
that have been frustrated for months over strict
limitations the Pentagon has placed on reporters’
coverage of operations in Afghanistan.


On the horizon is "Profiles From the Front
Line," an ABC series from Jerry Bruckheimer,
producer of feature action films such as
"Pearl Harbor," and Bertram van
Munster, whose TV credits include the reality
series "Cops."


The Pentagon has pre-screening rights over the ABC
material for national security reasons.


Van Munster rejected the possibility that his ABC
series would in some way be propaganda:


"I think they’re pretty realistic at the
Pentagon. This is not aimed at propaganda. We’re
trying to do something balanced, tell real stories
about Americans and the allies who are out there
while we’re sitting at home."


One producer of "reality," or
unscripted, television has concerns, however, over
just how much reality will be portrayed.


"I think our fighting men and women have a
difficult enough job to do without being asked to
perform on camera–as everyone who makes a reality
show knows, there is always some performance
involved," said Erik Nelson.


"And with the obligatory Pentagon public
information officers looking over everybody’s
shoulder, that reality could become even more
unreal."


The new programs come at a time when ratings for
reality series have sharply declined, with only
CBS’ "Survivor" continuing to draw
strong prime-time audiences.


Nelson called such shows "the equivalent of
flu viruses. Every year there is a different
strain.


"Only this time, the reality is much more
serious–and gravely consequential."


He said he is concerned "that this unreality
could ultimately give people a simplistic
impression about how easily this war can be won.
War is always horrifically surprising, and
surprising is the one thing that prime-time
entertainment seldom is."


News producers have other worries. ABC News lodged
a complaint with the network’s entertainment
executives over the "Profiles" series,
according to an executive there. (ABC News
declined to comment.)


Other TV news executives said they were taking a
wait-and-see attitude. "If they’re getting
access we’re not getting, then there is something
wrong," said one senior news executive at
another network.


The agreement with the Hollywood producers comes
after five months of acrimony between the
Pentagon and news organizations over the strictest
rules the military has ever imposed on news
coverage.


For months after the U.S. bombing began on Oct. 7,
reporters were allowed no access at all to U.S.
troops operating inside Afghanistan, and they were
barred from traveling to neighboring countries
where the Pentagon was setting up air bases.

As various units headed for the region, the Pentagon
refused to confirm the deployments.


When reporters were allowed to accompany troops
inside Afghanistan for the first time, they were
for days not permitted to quote soldiers by their
full names, and at one point several reporters
were locked inside a metal shed for an afternoon
to prevent them from covering something.


The Pentagon has begun to waive some of the most
stringent restrictions and since January has
permitted several news organizations to accompany
special operations forces on a mission in
Afghanistan.


Joe Saltzman, associate dean of the USC Annenberg
School for Communication, called the programs
"a perfect vehicle for the government,"
giving the Pentagon "a certain amount of
control" over shows that will "likely
emphasize patriotism and good soldiering." As
long as they are labeled clearly as not being
news, "I don’t have a problem with
them."


As for the frustration of news organizations, he
said, "I don’t think anybody is going to be
fooled by this."


Some viewers will find the material interesting,
and "citizens who feel they’re not getting
the complete picture will be just as frustrated,
whether these shows go on the air or not."


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Author: Elizabeth Jensen / Esther Schrader

News Service: latimes.com

URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-022202wartv.story