Looking to the Future

Written by J.F. Lawton

My wife asked me the other day, "Why do you want editors in the Writers Guild?" Why indeed. The simple answer is that we need them so we can continue to be the Guild that represents storytellers and creators.

Television is viewed as a writer's medium. Most of the top producers and showrunners of narrative television are writers. But narrative television is under some pressure for a variety of economic and technical reasons, and if we don't look to the future our Guild runs the risk of suffering an erosion of our influence and power.

One of the areas of danger is reality television. It is already displacing large amounts of broadcast space that would have otherwise gone to narrative programs. Reality television is not a new phenomenon from a story standpoint. Talent shows, dating shows, and Queen for a Day shows have been around since the beginning of television.

What is different is that new technology allows such shows to be shot with much more flexibility and visual potential than the traditional way narrative programming was produced. Thanks to light and inexpensive video cameras that require less lighting, massive amounts of raw footage can now be captured and manipulated on powerful new non-linear editing systems to make a show more visually interesting. American Idol is simply Star Search with a lot more footage. Interviews, back stage activities, footage from back home, auditions across the country, etc. are edited together at a fast pace. These images can be manipulated endlessly with low cost special effects that simply weren't possible 10 years ago.

The average reality show simply blows away the average narrative program from a production value standpoint. Count the number of setups, locations, new scenes and characters and most narrative shows fall far behind visually. The current television model where sitcoms take place in one room, and dramas have four days on set and four days out simply can't compete in terms of creating interesting visuals. They just have more bullets than we do. But having vast amounts of interesting footage doesn't make a show. Someone has to put that footage together to tell a story. Story is always the most important aspect of entertainment, and it's as important in reality television as it is in narrative television. But writing a script in advance isn't the only way to tell a story.

On reality shows, sometimes story producers do script material, or at least outline it, in advance of production similar to the way narrative television is written. However because of the way reality programs are produced, creating large amounts of footage on the run, the story producer's role more often is to take the raw footage and create a "paper cut" script that cuts, say, 250 hours of footage into about two hours, complete with a narrative arc, story beats, etc. The Avid editor then takes this and, in a more or less collaborative creative dance/struggle with the story producer, cuts the final 39-minute show. What the story producer is doing is, arguably, editing on paper. And what the editor partnering with him is doing is story telling, on an Avid. The similarities in their jobs, from a storytelling point, are greater than their differences. Whether one creates the story with a typewriter, or an editing machine, the creative process isn't that different.

In fact on some reality shows, it is the editor who is primarily in charge, as the showrunner. (They get the catchy title Preditors, producer/editors.) These reality editor showrunners have more in common with dramatic writer showrunners (writer/producers) than they do with editors of dramatic shows. Demand for the best of them will only increase, and it is unlikely they will move into other editing jobs where they have less creative influence. It is far more likely they will bargain for more power and respect, and in many cases, get it. Likewise, talented non-showrunner editors will be more likely to push to become showrunners of other reality shows, than move into editing traditional narratives.

Meanwhile, narrative television is also changing to respond to reality programming. Shows like Cold Case, CSI, and Lost are already experimenting with new narrative techniques (larger casts, moving back and forth in time) and faster editing to keep audiences interested. Programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Unscripted are adopting some of the same production techniques used in reality television. This trend will continue and as it does, editors, as storytellers, will become increasingly important in narrative television as well to sort out all this footage. And it's just a question of time before the most successful editor/showrunners in reality television start pitching their own ideas for hybrid narrative shows, and before the networks start buying them.

Rather than bury our heads in the sand and hope reality goes away, we have to prepare for a world in which the lines between narrative television and reality television are increasingly blurred. Rather than see editor/storytellers (and their story producer brothers) as our competition, lets make them our partners to create a variety of interesting television. We need to bring all these storytellers into our Guild to continue our monopoly on story telling. This will be good for our Guild and good for these writers who happen to use an Avid.

Organizing Reality TV