Brownback: Reality TV Needs to Get a Little More Real

Posted May 6, 2003 at 2:43pm

As Hollywood tries to develop a reality television show chronicling the lives of Congressional aides, a Kansas Senator is calling on Tinseltown executives to produce more family-friendly programming.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R) said he has offered his own programming idea to network heads: developing a reality TV series focusing on people coping with and overcoming hardships such as divorce and other personal struggles.

“Why not go to a group of people that are in a fellowship group or something like that who are working through their problems?” Brownback said in an interview last week.

The Kansas Republican has long been a critic of what he describes as Hollywood’s glorification of sex and violence for the sole purpose of making money. He held hearings last month in the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on science, technology and space to investigate how children are affected by viewing violence and sex on television and in movies.

“In some of the meetings I have been in with the entertainment industry, I have put forward this idea,” said Brownback, naming Martha Williamson, executive producer of “Touched by an Angel,” as one person he has spoken to about the issue.

Brownback’s idea is to launch a reality show to compete with soap operas, a staple of the networks’ daytime programming schedule that he charged are not only “degrading” but are advancing “negative” messages.

“There are people during the day that don’t think there is anything they can watch on television that is not humanly degrading, not morally degrading to them,” Brownback said. “So you have a vast quantity of people that don’t watch anything or don’t want to watch anything because they are so offended.”

The Kansan said he is confident a family-friendly reality show would be readily accepted by viewers, because it would still project the drama that has made this genre of programming a recent hit.

“You still have the tensions and the difficulties in it, but you do it from people trying to solve and fix and lift themselves up rather than constantly pushing down,” he said.

Brownback is not the only Member pushing for Hollywood to focus its energies on producing more family-friendly entertainment. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) co-hosted a Capitol Hill forum last week to promote this same concept. But it will be an uphill battle, as reality shows such as “Joe Millionaire” and “The Bachelor” continue to score high ratings.

Brownback, though, said there is a market for family-friendly programming and pointed to the success of “Touched by an Angel,” which aired from 1994 until this past month, and the animated box office smash “Shrek,” as two good examples.

“I think that should say to the industry you can make great money off of doing very uplifting programming,” he said.

While Brownback is highly critical of Hollywood’s practice of marketing sex and violence, he said he has no immediate plans to offer legislation to force the industry to clean up. Instead, he is going to work to secure funding for research to examine the link between sex and violence and children’s behavior.

“We know that Hollywood hits the sex and violence buttons because they want to get the mind cooking,” Brownback said. “What is that doing to people?”

In the meantime, Brownback and other Members are concerned a reality show about Capitol Hill would not accurately portray the staffers’ lives and in turn would mimic other “sexually oriented shows.” But executives with Vin Di Bona Productions, which is developing the Capitol Hill reality show, said their goal is to portray staffers in a realistic light.

As for his own idea for a reality program, Brownback said reaction so far “has been cautious” but added that people have found it “interesting conceptually.” But Brownback conceded it will be up to Hollywood executives: “They are the leaders in the industry and the ones who decide whether or not they can make a certain product move forward.”