A new reality show starring TV newspeople in small-market Greenville, Miss., is raising questions about whether reporters and producers ought to get mixed up with an entertainment genre that is often reality in name only.
“It would be hard to make local TV news much more of a joke than it already is, so my knee-jerk, this-is-horrible reaction is tempered by that fact,” says Variety TV critic Brian Lowry. “The line between journalism and entertainment has already been blurred and this will only further that process.”
On top of that, unscripted TV is not necessarily as real as it claims to be, he says.
“There’s a high level of staging and direction that goes on in these shows, so the news personnel effectively become actors.”
The show, Breaking Greenville, is an eight-episode “character-driven docu-soap” scheduled to debut in December on Turner’s TruTV (there’s no set date yet).
The show chronicles the lives of those reporting and producing the news at ABC affiliate WABG and CBS affiliate WXVT, the two news-producers in the country’s 190th largest market.
Based on the promo trailer (which is all we can see right now) and a chat with producer Adam Paul, Breaking Greenville seems to have all the makings of standard reality fare, including quirky characters, professional jealousies and off-beat environments.
In the Mississippi Delta, Paul says, locals do things like compete in the annual Snake Grabbin’ Rodeo and blow up beaver dams.
WABG, the oldest station in the market, has been Greenville’s No. 1 news station for years, but WXVT is nipping at its heels, says WABG GM Sherry Nelson. In the February sweeps, the stations “were pretty neck-and-neck,” she says.
“They are both very strong, full-service stations, and viable parts of the community,” Nelson adds.
WABG and WXVT — actually all of Greenville TV — are in the hands of one man, Charles Harker. In addition to WABG, his Commonwealth Broadcasting Group owns the low-power NBC affiliate WNBD and the Fox affiliate, which airs on a WABG subchannel. With a shared services agreement, Harker’s company also operates WXVT, which is owned by Harker’s grown children.
Kelly McBride, Poynter’s media ethics maven, says that “on the face of it, there’s nothing wrong” with journalists doing a reality TV gig, assuming nothing is staged.
“But most reality shows are not reality shows and you have to start from that supposition,” McBride says, adding that the onus is on the journalists to prove that their on-screen actions are 100% authentic. Otherwise, they’re putting the industry at risk, she says.
“Our job in journalism is to tell the truth, and if we do anything to suggest that we are not telling the truth, we lose our credibility with our audience,” she says. “We don’t redo things, and we don’t give them a second shot.”
This is not the first time local TV news operations have been the subjects of reality TV.
The TV Guide Network aired Making News: Texas Style, which followed a crew working for KOSA, the CBS affiliate in Odessa-Midland, Texas, in 2007. The following year, the network aired Making News: Savannah Style, which starred ABC affiliate WJCL and Fox affiliate WTGS, which were sister stations in the Georgia market at the time.
But as TV Guide Executive Editor Michael Schneider notes, “They don’t seem to ever do well. It seems awfully strange and only something you can get away with in a small market.”
Paul, the producer, insists that Breaking Greenville is an authentic look at Greenville’s TV news business, which, after a fairly extensive search, was selected to star in the series because it genuinely is kind of wacky.
Although the show includes occasional shots that, for instance, recreate something the crew missed when the cameras weren’t rolling, Breaking Greenville is “all based in reality,” Paul says. “These are real people who value their jobs and go after them, and care about the people they’re serving.”
Paul says that during their stay in Greenville earlier this year, his team would primarily “watch and shoot,” capturing WABG and WXVT on typical workdays.
“We covered them covering their stories,” he says.
The journalists who appear in Breaking Greenville “were never in character” — although that doesn’t mean they are not entertaining, he says.
“These people are all characters,” he says. “You have a racially diverse cast, young and old. They are all different but they all have the same goal, and that’s to produce the best news possible.”
From the looks of the show, the people who work at WABG and WXVT are pretty goofy, a mix of rookies, like Lucy Biggers, the perky anchor from Connecticut, to vets with big personalities, such as WABG News Director Pam Chatman, who calls herself “the Oprah of the South.”
The promo makes Greenville broadcasting look as comically small-town as it gets, fraught with “technical difficulties” like blank screens, broken teleprompters and staffers who need to be told to not say the word “awesome” on-air.
Chatman, who happens to be the first African-American woman to hold a news director job in Mississippi, vouches for Breaking Greenville’s authenticity.
She says Greenville, a sprawling, and largely rural, market covering seven counties, tends to draw a mix of staffers, not unlike other places where rookies go for a couple of years to get experience.
“In small markets we allow these young people to come here, and we want to see what gifts and talents they have,” Chatman says. “But at the same time, they can be themselves and grow.”
The Biggers who appears in Breaking Greenville “is the real Lucy,” she says. The same goes for David Lush, the reporter who comes into work everyday with a song, a dance and a large iced tea from Sonic.
“People think he is not a real employee of this company, but he is,” Chatman says. “For the last six or seven years he has done nothing different. People need to know we’re real people.’
But Harker acknowledges that there was some playing to the cameras.
He says certain scenes, like one in which WXVT meteorologist Eric Zernich shows off his booty in front of a green screen, were done specifically for the Breaking Greenville cameras.
“It’s grounded in reality. But they said they wanted to have a comedic approach to engage the audience.”
Harker says he was paid for allowing his news teams to appear on the show, but wouldn’t say how much.
GM Nelson says she also asked staffers not to badmouth colleagues on-air or stir up any undue drama — and gave them the option of opting out, which some did.
Staffers also agreed to keep quiet about why Biggers, the show’s biggest personality, left WABG last month.
Paul says revealing that would “be a spoiler.” On her Facebook page, Biggers writes that she’ll “be in New York and on the West Coast pursuing a career in TV.”
None of which, Harker says, diminishes the effort his newspeople put into their day jobs, or the programs they produce. He notes that Breaking Greenville is not a documentary — nor does it pretend to be. If it were, “It would be much different,” he says.
“Our people are serious journalists and do a professional job,” he says. But, in Breaking Greenville, those professional journalists serve as series cast members, he says.
Harker says he has no problem with that, saying that he was ensured his reporters’ primary jobs would come first during Breaking Greenville’s production, and that having the crew on-site did not infringe on that.
“We’re comfortable with it,” Harker says. “We wouldn’t have agreed to do it if we weren’t.”
Paul Greeley contributed to this story.
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