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Reality check: Unscripted TV a hit for L.A. economy

Production of such programs jumped in 2006 as films and commercials declined.

January 25, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Reality has set in throughout Los Angeles.

Camera crews tracking the unscripted lives of car buffs, geeky guys longing to date supermodels, wannabe singers and aspiring tycoons are filling streets and neighborhoods, turning the area into the reality TV capital of the world.

The trend will be underscored today when local film officials release statistics that show the number of days spent shooting reality TV episodes in Los Angeles soared 53% last year, accounting for about 40% of all on-location TV production. All told, reality film crews spent the equivalent of 8,397 days filming here in 2006.

At a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, billionaire Donald Trump is telling some of his job candidates in NBC's "The Apprentice" that they have been banished to sleep in a tent at a Mulholland Drive mansion. In Culver City, rap star and car enthusiast Xzibit is rehabilitating junkers in MTV's "Pimp My Ride." Throughout Southern California, Style Network's "Clean House" is battling clutter and bad taste.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Reality TV: The caption for a photo with an article in Thursday's Business section about filming reality TV shows in L.A. misidentified executive producer Gina Rubinstein of the Style Network series "Clean House" as Rubinsfein.

"Everybody wants to see themselves reflected on the screen," said Salaam Coleman Smith, executive vice president of Style Network, which films 10 unscripted shows in Los Angeles. "The American public has become the star of the show."

The numbers show that reality TV, for better or worse, has become an increasingly important component of the Los Angeles entertainment infrastructure, which supports about 240,000 local jobs and contributes an estimated $30 billion into the local economy. Los Angeles economist Jack Kyser estimates at least 30,000 local jobs are tied to reality television.

On a positive note, unscripted programs have contributed to a larger boom in local television production, which is helping blunt job losses due to the luring of feature films to other states that offer financial incentives. Last year, on-location feature-film production declined 7% from 2005 as more films were drawn to such states as New Mexico, New York and Louisiana.

But reality shows don't pack the same economic punch as scripted shows, which have larger budgets, bigger crews and longer runs. A typical one-hour drama that runs 22 episodes costs close to $50 million, compared with about $7 million spent on a 10-episode reality show.

"While we appreciate the fact that reality production is occurring here rather than somewhere else and people are being employed, reality TV in general doesn't have anywhere near the same economic impact as other forms of television," said Steve MacDonald, president of the nonprofit FilmL.A. Inc., which handles permits for much of Los Angeles County.

When it burst onto the prime-time television scene in 2000 with CBS' "Survivor," reality TV was dismissed by some as low-brow fare that would fade. Instead, the genre's popularity with audiences -- and low costs -- have caused it to flourish, making it a key driver of local production. The 53% jump in reality TV activity compares with increases of 13% and 6%, respectively, for sitcoms and dramas. Los Angeles hosted several new TV series last year, including ABC's "The Nine" and CBS' "Jericho", along with such returning cable shows as HBO's "Entourage."

But shoots for commercials fell 3.4%, the first yearly decline since 2000, when the industry was roiled by a six-month strike by industry actors. MacDonald attributed the decline to changes in the advertising industry, including an increase in online advertising, and the fact that producers are opting for lower-cost locales.

Reality TV production could become even more important to Los Angeles as labor tensions mount. Cable and broadcast networks are expected to order even more shows as a hedge against a possible writers' strike this year.

"You're going to see a lot more of it on the streets of Los Angeles in the coming year," Kyser said.



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Made in L.A.

A sampling of locally filmed reality shows, the networks they are on and the general locations of their filming:

* "Beauty and the Geek," the CW, Wilshire area

* "The Apprentice," NBC, Hollywood Hills

* "Top Chef," Bravo, downtown arts district

* "The Girls Next Door," E, Holmby Hills

* "Parental Control," MTV, San Fernando Valley

* "Clean House," Style Network, Sherman Oaks

* "Pimp My Ride," MTV, Culver City and San Fernando Valley

* "The Surreal Life," VH1, Hollywood Hills


Source: FilmL.A.

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