It’s getting unreal.

So-called reality shows are spreading across television faster than microbes at a murder scene. Carefully cast, expertly edited, frequently more contrived than the decorations at the junior prom, they present heightened worlds that are usually more fiction than fact.

TV types like to call them “alternative programming,” not so true now that they saturate the airwaves, or “unscripted.” That can be stretching things too, in some cases. With a reality as phony as the smile on a Hollywood TV exec, these shows should be called “phonality.”

Uninformed sophisticates may dismiss the entire genre as banal. Most of it is, or worse – offensive, exploitative, degrading. But the world of phonality is just as broad and diverse as the worlds of comedy and drama. With the enthusiasm that it has ignited in the business, the genre is attracting talented people who produce some of the most provocative and entertaining series on television today.

The successes of “American Idol,” “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Bachelor,” and “America’s Next Top Model” (and you still say phonality is all the same?) have inspired a dot.com-style hysteria in the TV business.

David E. Kelley, the virtuoso creator of “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Boston Public,” is turning his hand to the genre.

Cable’s Spike TV announced that the Rev. Al Sharpton will star in this fall’s “I Hate My Job,” giving employment advice to men going after the career of their dreams.

TBS is in the midst of casting a phonality “Gilligan’s Island,” seeking a real-life skipper, first mate, millionaire couple, movie star, and professor.

Bravo had its highest ratings ever among 25- to 54-year-old viewers for a show on a June Tuesday a couple of weeks ago. A whopping 526,000 tuned in to its new “Blow Out” (starstruck hairstylist seeks success in Beverly Hills).

The list is endless.

As with all niche programming, each show will probably amuse people in its target audience. And those who don’t consider themselves targets but just enjoy a good laugh may find some mirth on Spike TV’s “Joe Schmo Show,” the first phonality satire. A&E’s “Airline,” adventures of passengers and staff of Southwest Airlines, starts its second season Monday at 10p.m. It’s as much fun as a deep-discount round-trip.

Completely ignore phonality at the peril of your own enjoyment, Mr. and Mrs. Nose in the Air. As with all TV fads, its current frenzied bubble will burst, but the genre is here to stay.

Besides, you know deep down that, these days, almost anything is better than “The West Wing.”



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