Narration in Reality TV

The Deadliest Catch “Best of Season 7” special on tonight not only hyped me up for the return of the series, it once again impressed me with its presentation.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I have been watching waaaay too many trashy reality TV shows of late.

I believe I’ve found a touchstone that can indicate spectacular reality programs and differentiate those from the shows that are merely good, and sort the good reality programs from the trash: Narration. Essentially, how important information not witnessed firsthand by the cameras is presented to the viewers.

One of the reasons Deadliest Catch succeeds is because of the narrative passages (spoken by Mike Rowe).  There is so much that the average viewer does not know about Alaskan crab fishing that narration becomes absolutely essential for explaining why the “characters” are doing what they’re doing.  It serves a worldbuilding function in the television series.  The Discovery Networks people are old hat at narration, since their programming essentially started out as documentaries.  High-quality narration is seen, in fact, throughout all of the network channels, which include Animal Planet, Science, Investigation Discovery, and TLC.  They know how to hire good writers and get (for the most part) proper actors or show hosts to narrate their shows.

Next, a pet peeve of mine: visual narration.  Blegh.  I’m not sure if the current vogue comes because it is more “artsy” than verbal narration, or because the show can’t afford to hire a voice to read a few lines.  Shows currently using this format include I Survived…, Hoarders, and Intervention. Visual narration is not necessarily bad storytelling, however, it has severe limitations. First, it is difficult to present a lot of information, since that requires multiple “tiles” of printed words, and as in comics/graphic novels, that can bog down the story.  Second, it is frustrating because it demands total visual attention to the television screen.  For people like me (and perhaps my generation at large), this is problematic because we are usually multitasking while the TV is on – checking our phones, browsing the web, doing homework, etc.  Our eyes are not locked to the screen for the duration of the show, because generally the audio supplements the visual images.  A&E shows like Intervention could learn from successful channel companions like The First 48, which accompanies important visual information (the time remaining in the case, for example), with audible cues (the sound of the clock ticking) – making the viewer look at the screen.  Visual narration does not indicate a bad reality program, but those shows are not exactly cream of the crop.  There’s a certain conceit that the viewers will always be riveted to the screen that is vaguely annoying.

The next level down: voiceovers clearly added in post-production.  This is a frequent problem of shows that lack a narrator, often competition reality shows.  Usually the host will present information on-site to the “competitors,” but later on that is not enough to explain what is happening in the show to the audience.  If the sound specialists and editors are good enough, this is not much of an issue.  But if the add-in voiceover does not match what the host was saying on-site, the results can be cringe-worthy.  Shows that suffer from this syndrome include Survivor, Project Runway, Top Chef, and America’s Next Top Model.  Generally Survivor’s missteps come from not being able to clearly hear the information the first time around, and the dialogue is re-recorded later.  The Achilles heel of Project Runway and Top Chef is always the announcement of the prizes, which obviously were not determined when the episodes were filmed.  America’s Next Top Model wins the shudder-worthy prize here, with non-matching voiceovers throughout every season.

Finally, the tier of the trash: reality shows that are “narrated” by their own “characters.” These are programs which have learned entirely the wrong lesson from shows like Deadliest Catch, which intersperse real narration with interviews provided by the people being filmed.  These shows combine narration with “interviews” that are not spontaneous, but clearly written by a scriptwriter locked in a closet somewhere.  Rather than having a producer asking the right questions to get the reality show subjects providing information (by their own volition), these shows stuff the relevant information into the subject’s mouths. The result is a catastrophic double-failure at narration and at sincerity.  It lacks the implied impartiality of audible narration (Deadliest Catch) and loses the charm of “real” interviews which come spontaneously from the participants (Survivor).  Channel culprits include SpikeTV, truTV, some A&E and History Channel shows.  They’re generally shows about pawn shops, repossessions, and storage hunters.  Complete and utter junk-food-TV.

So those, in a nutshell, are the four flavors of reality television narration (as I see them).  Please excuse me while I wring the oily vestiges of trashiness from my TV palate and prepare to watch some more refreshing, well-narrated shows like Frozen Planet.

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