by Ron Brooks
I recently participated in an on-line discussion with several blind people about the way that reality TV shows portray so-called "real people" in general and blind people in particular. This was a heated discussion where people referred to reality show producers as "vultures" and to the content as "sensationalized crap."
Although I'm not a big reality TV fan — I was lost on "Lost," and I would have voted Survivor off the island if I had been given the chance -- I think there is some room for hope about how this medium can be used and even about some of the people who are working to produce its content, and I have some pretty good evidence to back my optimism.
About a year ago, my wife Lisa and I were contacted by a producer of reality TV shows because he was looking for blind parents of sighted children, who use dog guides, and he was referred to us by someone else in the community. He wanted to know if we would like to be featured on a show they were developing to pitch to "a major network."
At the time, Lisa and I were a little tight on money. In addition, we have both been active in the community, have strong feelings about our capabilities as parents and about our love for each other and our kids, and we thought this might be a good opportunity to say something positive to a larger and largely uninformed audience. We also thought it would be fun for us and the kids — something none of us would ever do again, so we decided to see where things might go.
A few days later, I got a fancy digital camera in the mail, and we shot a home video of me talking in front of my office at work, Lisa and me interacting with the kids, and the kids giving a tour of our townhouse. This was incredibly cute, especially when my 5-year-old daughter said, "We love you America!" We ended the home video with Lisa and me sitting on our sofa at the end of the day, drinking a bottle of wine and talking about ourselves, about our relationship with each other, our kids and our philosophies about blindness. We figured it would either seal or kill the deal. From our perspective, we had fun, and we really didn't care what happened from that point on.
We sent the home video in, and a week or two later, I got a call from someone higher up at the same production company. They wanted to send a crew out to shoot the demo that they would actually pitch to the networks. We discussed contracts, and they sent me some non-negotiable appearance releases for signature. At this point, they didn't know I negotiate contracts for a living, and they were probably surprised when I proposed edits, but again, we honestly didn't care what happened, and I figured that a little assertiveness might go a long way toward future negotiations — like on money, should things go that far. In addition to haggling over contract clauses, we again talked a lot about philosophy. In fact, one of the reasons I pushed them on the contract terms was so that I would have some leverage over content and portrayal. Neither Lisa nor I figured we would be accurately portrayed, and we expected some pity and inspirational BS in the demo, so we wanted to have some leverage to push them to minimize it. I also figured that by negotiating their non-negotiable contracts, I would be sending a message—either one of the capabilities of blind people or one regarding me being a you-know-what. But we got it all done, and a shooting schedule was set for early January.
The weekend of January 9 was one of the most interesting ones in my life. The production crew (which included a producer, a photographer and one production assistant) showed up at 9:30, and we got right to work. We spent the next two very long days shooting and reshooting the same shots — Lisa cooking food and showing off marked cans, me getting dressed for work and talking about the labeling of clothes and ties, me going to work on the bus, me and the kids giving one of the dogs a bath, Lisa shopping with the kids, all of us at a park where we met another blind couple for a picnic, and me getting ready for a work trip. Later, when I was in D.C. for work, we did some follow-up shots of me on a business trip — complete with me falling on my butt on very icy streets after a rare D.C. snowstorm.
From this experience, we learned a couple of key facts about reality TV. First, reality TV is anything but real and simultaneous. We practiced the so-called money shots and lines over and over. We redid spontaneous scene after spontaneous scene — I think I got my son out of bed four times because he kept blowing the scene by staring at the photographer or laughing or both. Second, we learned that these people work very hard. Before they got to us, they were laying out their day, and after they left 12 hours later, they were going through their footage and figuring out what they had and what they still needed to get.
I also must say that the producer was anything but a vulture. Alfonso (that's his name) was very curious and asked tons of questions. He marveled not at the fact that we could do stuff but at how we were able to do stuff, and that's a critical distinction because "Can you?" is very different from "How can you?" He also sent me a note after we were done saying how he appreciated the opportunity to do something positive and encouraging rather than extreme, pitiful or outrageous.
Ultimately, the network did not buy our show, so as per the terms of my negotiated agreement, I got a copy of the demo they gave to the networks. It was about 15 minutes long and extremely well-done. There are not three seconds where there is not some combination of images, text and spoken dialogue going on, and I can honestly say that none of it was exploitive or pathetic. They started with Lisa and me talking about how we met and fell in love. They covered our typical day pretty well. They covered me traveling (including my slip and fall in D.C., which was actually funny in context), and they really made us look capable and interesting, if only for a few minutes. At the end, we appeared like a normal family with very busy lives, who have kids we love, a busy work life and lots going on, but who have to deal with a set of challenges that very few people understand. I'm actually sorry that the network didn't want this show because I think it would have been positive in a non-inspirational sort of way, but Lisa and I both believe that the lack of drama or difficulty in our lives was probably a turn-off to the networks.
And this fact brings me to the real issue. It's not the producers who are vultures. It's our depraved society who would rather hear about a murder, a brutal rape or watch people eat live bugs on an island in order not to be voted off who generate advertising revenues which fund commercial entertainment. In other words, the producers are just producing what the consumers are willing to consume.
Ultimately, we're all responsible for what's on TV, and that includes us blind people. I also think that we blind people need to be open to roles in the entertainment industry because this is the best way for us to get our message and a more accurate portrayal of ourselves out to the larger world.
One more thing: Being the star of your own show (even if no one else watches it) is a lot of work and even more fun, so if you ever get the chance, put your worries aside and go for it. I promise you won't regret it.