Singing, cooking, dancing, designing, modeling—these are all art forms we’ve grown accustomed to watching people with varying degrees of skill perform on reality TV competition shows. At one point or another, network executives have also tried their luck with similar elimination-based programs about telling jokes (Last Comic Standing), applying makeup (Face Off), taking photographs (The Shot), acting (Scream Queens), making conceptual stuff (Work of Art), impersonating females (RuPaul’s Drag Race), and even filmmaking (On the Lot). Indeed, the format is so formulaic by now that if there’s some talent a dozen or so people possess, there’s probably a television producer encouraging them all to do it on camera against each other.
So why not writing? Why hasn’t anyone tried that yet? Where’s the American Idol of critical essays or Iron Chef of short stories? When America’s illiteracy rate is arguably at its lowest in history and the general public is actively engaged in rearranging the alphabet to communicate meaning via emails, status updates, and website comments, it seems the time is right for the century’s most prolific television genre to feature the craft of writing.
Just over a year ago, Entertainment Weekly published an article addressing this omission from primetime, in which staff member Stephan Lee composed a “ridiculously detailed” pitch for a reality show about book writing. Lee’s proposal contains everything from struggling MFA students to a variety of episodic challenges (ghostwriting, book tours, day jobs) to satirist Gary Shteyngart being one of the judges to the elimination catchphrase, “You’ve been slushpiled!” The working title: Great American Author (though Lee admits the network would probably change this to The Next Best-Seller).
Lee’s article was well-received, and the top comment simply states, “Now THIS I would watch! Why aren’t you the one coming up with tv shows??” Still though, a reality TV competition show about writing has yet to materialize. Why?
“Literally seeing the process of writing would be torture.”
“BECAUSE WRITING IS BORING,” said Peter Hankoff, a Los Angeles-based television producer, director, and writer who has worked for National Geographic, History Channel, and Discovery Channel. “How do you watch writing? Do you see how fast men and women can type?”
As Hankoff explained, the very first question he asks when either assigned a new show or developing one on his own is “What the hell are we looking at?” Admittedly, footage of someone quietly sitting hunched over her MacBook in a dark corner of the public library doesn’t sound all that riveting. Unlike the sound of onions sautéing in a seasoned pan or the sight of dancer rhythmically moving his limbs before a big mirror in a studio, the image of a jaded writer mumbling to herself before dispassionately pressing and holding the delete button for eight seconds straight just doesn’t seem appealing. Visually, the craft of writing simply isn’t that strong in the performance department.
“If you were doing America’s Got Writing, I guarantee no one’s watching that show,” said Hankoff. “Even I’m not watching that show, cause what am I going to watch?”
Another practical production obstacle would be getting the audience to read the contestants’ work—because viewers would probably have to do it on their own time. How else could America develop informed opinions about who’s overrated, who’s misunderstood, who’s lacking in confidence, and who’s in possession of a style that deserves the prize, among all the other archetypes these shows tend to generate, if the public can’t read the writing in full?
“Are contestants supposed to read their 5,000-word essays out loud for a panel of judges?” asked Meredith Blake, an entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times. “Unless they’re writing haikus, there’s no way to do this in a manner that doesn’t suck up huge amounts of time…. Even if the contestants are just writing 500-word stories, 10 500-word stories equals 5,000 words. That’s a lot of time spent just sitting there reading, which no one is going to want to do and makes for really boring TV.”
Judy Berman, editor-in-chief of the New York-based art and culture site Flavorwire, agrees: “For a short story, you really have to read it to have an opinion—and though I could imagine a show incorporating some kind of online element where the stories are available to read before the judges announce their decision, I just don’t think most viewers will be committed enough to read tens of thousands of words a week in order to follow a reality TV show.”
While it’s true that there have been reality shows in which writing is involved, they’ve either eschewed the competition aspect or focused on things other than writing. There was Tabloid Wars, which followed around editors and reporters at the New York Daily News, and another called The City, which “documented” a young woman who worked at Elle magazine. In 2007, MTV aired 10 episodes of I’m From Rolling Stone, whereby six young journalists competed for a gig at the illustrious publication—though, judging by the trailer, it looks like the show focused much more on celebrity appearances than word choice or story structure.
For those skeptics who think it just can’t be done, however, the United Arab Emirates has a long-running competition series titled Million’s Poet, in which contestants write and perform Arabic poetry, American Idol-style. In 2008, Variety deemed the show a “runaway success,” as it captured more viewers than soccer when it debuted the previous year on Abu Dhabi TV and is now hailed as one of the most successful Arab television shows ever.
Still, if there were even a chance of profiting from such a show in the American context, you’d think a network executive would have at least given an idea like Lee’s a try by now.
“I personally think you can almost make a good show about anything,” said David Madsen, a television producer, novelist, and screenwriter, who’s also the co-founder of the website Write Reality, which runs a contest whereby people can submit reality TV show pitches for a chance of seeing them come to fruition. “It all depends on who’s in it, the execution, and the quality of the idea.”
That said, Madsen sees more problems in launching a skills-based show about writing than he does virtues. Again: What is the viewer looking at? Writing is cerebral and often done alone, making the creative act nearly impossible to capture on film.
“Literally seeing the process of writing would be torture,” he said.
As for this notion that everyone alive today with a smartphone who relentlessly composes tweets and sends text messages is therefore greatly intrigued by the power of letters to evoke feelings and challenge thoughts, Blake considers the link tenuous at best.
“While more people are literate than ever before, that doesn’t mean there are masses yearning to watch a show about people vying to become America’s next top poet or literary critic,” she said. “It also doesn’t help that the viewer who would be interested in that kind of show, at least theoretically, is exactly the type of person who would reflexively eschew reality TV—the type of person who probably watches Breaking Bad, but has a knee-jerk reaction against reality TV.”
Although Blake laments the outright prejudice some hold against the reality genre, perhaps a competition show about writing could bridge the gulf between lovers of Project Runway on one side and fans of Mad Men on the other. It’s an opportunity, at least.
FOR NOW, AN AMERICAN reality competition for writers just doesn’t seem likely to happen. While a small group of keeners would certainly tune in each week to commiserate with the contestants’ burden of pounding out paragraphs and to listen to the judges articulate why a certain phrase or punctuation mark works or not, it’s clear that would-be investors of such a show don’t think they’d make a good-enough return. Even with the drama and jealousy and unholy ambition some reality TV contestants tend to subsist on, the medium of writing just doesn’t come across as a suitable subject matter.
“I think writing as a performance has the luxury of not necessarily being connected directly to a reading audience,” said Margaret Eby, an entertainment reporter for the New York Daily News. “Food, live music, dance—all of them have a quality of immediacy that writing doesn’t have. I think the best shot for a reality show about writing is one about writers. Fifteen creative non-fiction writers in a house? People would stop being polite and start turning every anecdote into a 5,000-word musing for n+1.”