An Open Letter to Variety about the idea
RealityTV lead the way in Embracing LGBT

by Dr. Rosanne Welch

A Rant on Reality Shows in the form of an Open Letter to the Writer of a Variety Article that credited Reality TV with helping bring LGBT people into the culture…

It’s time to take umbrage (a word that is now largely evocative of Delores Umbridge from the Ministry of Magic thanks to J.K. Rowling’s glorious use of language throughout the Harry Potter books) but it is time to take umbrage at an idea presented in a column in showbiz mag Variety on June 15th, 2015.

Writer Sean Kelly asserted that LGBT people have been most aided by the representation given to them in Reality TV shows, I gagged. And gagged again. He traces that representation to 1973 to the PBS program An American Family and writes, “At the crux of the LGBT community’s acceptance on unscripted television is the genre’s ability to portray authentic narratives.”

“Authentic narratives” on UNauthentic, UNreality TV? Who edited this article? Yes, there have been gay characters IN reality TV since, as they note, the PBS documentary series (see, we used to call ‘reality TV’ documentary — and we still would, except the producers of modern reality TV refused the term documentary since documentaries were covered by the craft unions — WGA, DGA, SAG — and their new brainchild — ‘reality TV’ — was NOT so they could hire folks with no need to add to the health or pension benefits the guilds had so long protected. And by the other way if you think about it, if those ‘reality’ shows aren’t documentaries then they are game shows, as the contestants win something at the end of all of them — but game shows were covered by the guilds, too, to those nasty producers had to invent a genre that wasn’t covered…)

SOOOO now that we’ve established the fact that reality TV began with as UNrealistic a promise as could be created, let’s remember it’s not real either. The fact I point out to all my students when they mention watching reality shows is — How REAL can they be if the participants claim to be fighting over lack of food on an island when those of us in the business know that right behind that camera that is covering their fight, there is a craft services cart FULL of food for the camera operator, the makeup crew and everyone else? Reality my ass — as they say.

Reality producers don’t even call their employees by their real, earned titles — they have hired writers to serve as ‘associate producers’ — who in the end actually write more than half the dialogue given to contestants during their on camera recaps of how they felt when they were fighting over that non-existent last piece of meat. And the writers cum associate producers assist in casting to get the diverse types that will be voted Most Likely to Take a Life (no — wait — that’s me riffing off of Juan Epstein’s reputation in Welcome Back, Kotter) — but you get the point. The writers working under this fake title of associate producer come up with the situations that will force the contestants into dramatic confrontations. How is that NOT writing? But, I digress…

Now that I’m through telling you exactly how Unreal Unreality TV is, let’s get back to this faulty claim that this genre uses “reality TV as a platform to share personal stories helped shatter stereotypes”. The idea that Reality TV came to the aid of the LGBT community is utter bullshit.! Back to that PBS documentary “An American Family” — which aired on PBS in 1973. A full year BEFORE that ABC aired a scripted made-for-TV Movie of the Week called, That Certain Summer, perhaps the first to deal with the subject of homosexuality sympathetically. In the film, Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen played lovers (which is interesting since as I mentioned in the last show, Martin Sheen now plays Sam Waterston’s partner in Grace and Frankie). Written by Richard Levinson and William Link, of Columbo and Murder She Wrote fame, That Certain Summer told the story from the point of view of Holbrook’s teenage son who came to spend the summer with his divorced dad and discovered the real reason behind his parents’ divorce.

I LOVE the quote Martin Sheen gave back in the day when he was asked if the role could affect his future career choices. He said, “I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in?”

“I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in?”

So That Certain Summer is the kind of SCRIPTED presentation of gay characters that seems far more sympathetic, honest and REAListic than anything reality TV has offered us over the years — AND it was first, before the kid on An American Family came out of the closet. Not that being first counts in everything, but facts do count and so that Variety article can’t claim Unreality TV did if first when they didn’t.

As far as scripted weekly dramas or comedies go, the never-afraid-of-controversy classic producer Norman Lear brought an older gay couple onto the small screen when he adapted the Obie-award-winning, off-Broadway show Hot l Baltimore for television in 1975. Despite the success of most of Mr. Lear’s previous programming, audiences did not flock to the hotel with the missing ‘e’ in its sign and the network canceled the show after its first season.

Only two years later another show succeeded by receiving four seasons while presenting a gay character among the series regulars. When she created Soap, Susan Harris created Jodie Dallas, a gay man portrayed by Billy Crystal, who we could now consider the grandfather to Will Truman of Will and Grace. Between Soap and Will and Grace scripted television has given us 1985’s TV movie, An Early Frost, on NBC, which featured Aidan Quinn telling his parents that he is gay and that he has AIDS and scripted television gave us Ellen’s coming out as both a character in a sitcom and a real life actress/comedian. And I haven’t even mentioned daytime soaps and all the work they did bringing gay characters into the mainstream right in the middle of the day — when mommies and grandmas were watching.

So back to this confused article from Variety — how can one equate the balanced representation of three-dimensional LGBT characters in scripted television to the exploitation of real LGBT on Unreality TV shows such as Survivor or The Real World. None of these presentations — or representations — have ever carried the weight that came scripted television. No REALITY show ever came close to THAT kind of honest reality. Variety should apologize for that sloppy, un-researched story giving glory to a genre that does not deserve it — at least not in the march toward LGBT rights.

If you have any comments or ideas to share, let me know via the comments,
email at or via Twitter @MindfullMedia and we’ll develop your ideas as we go.

Dr. Rosanne Welch

— This Article was written by — Dr. Rosanne Welch

Mindful(l) Media with Dr Rosanne Welch

Episode 7: Reality TV & LGBT +
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