Variety – Nashville Screenwriters Conference

Music city meets reality

Variety

Published:  June 1, 2012

It’s hard out there for a screenwriter. The spec market is a shadow of its former self, shrinking studio development slates mean drastically less rewrite work, and those writers who manage to win jobs often earn a fraction of their former quotes.

In this talent-glutted market, the Nashville Screenwriting Conference has some surprising advice for frustrated writers: Try reality television.

In a panel called “The Reality of Reality Television: What Works and Why,” four non-fiction TV veterans will review the ins and outs of working in the medium.

But wait a second: Isn’t reality TV, by definition, unscripted?

Yes and no, says panelist Sheila Conlin, the veteran television producer whose credits include the upcoming Fox reality show, “Take Me Out.”

“As far as people writing pages every day for people to say, that’s not happening,” Conlin says. “We’re not writing scripts. But the overall show has a structure.”

And, as with features and scripted television, that narrative structure doesn’t happen by accident. “The writing is definitely happening in setting the outline and then guiding it,” Conlin says. The producers (they’re not called writers) “create the show, develop the show, and then lay out the structure of the show. We do follow an outline.”

Still, traditional scriptwriters don’t hold reality television in the highest regard. As veteran showrunner Ken Sanzel (“Numbers,” “NYC 22″) puts it: “Writers want to tell compelling stories. I don’t know one who thinks that the best medium to achieve those is reality TV.”

Conlin concedes that in prior years when she’s attended the NSC — this is her first time as a panelist — the writers there “ridiculed” her (good-naturedly) for working in reality. But she was also “bombarded” by participants wanting to discuss ideas with her. The panel was created in response to that pent-up demand. “I think … people feel they have a lot more access … than in trying to get into the scripted world,” Conlin says. Ultimately, reality television “is popular and it’s where a lot of the work is. It’s a place to make money.”