I'll Take My Reality With a Generous Dollop of Fiction, Please

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The American viewing public is hugely capricious. Here we are, going on and on about how much we love "reality" programming, sending CBS's ratings into the stratosphere. We're mad about "Survivor," we'll watch "Big Brother" if there's nothing better on, and it's come to my attention that some people also actually watch "Cops." But that love, while powerful, is unpredictable.

"The West Wing," for example, was a bonanza for NBC last season. It's got great ratings, appeals to the lusted-after 18-to-49 demographic and has an affluent audience. Thursday morning the show was nominated for 18 Emmy awards, including best drama. In short, this program is a winner.

And it is absolutely, 100 percent not real. In fact, "The West Wing" is a preternaturally rosy version of the political scene: The vice president has a full head of hair (sorry, Al), the press corps is nosy but humane, the President is tortured by intellectual and moral dilemmas, yet firmly unmoved by pledges of money or sex. So where is our passion for "reality" programming now?

It's not that the Emmy nominations surprise me all that much. After all, they come straight from the pretentiously named National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, whose members must be worried sick that their mostly unfunny sitcoms and dull dramas are going the way of the dinosaur. Pesky "reality" programs such as "Survivor" and cheaply made game shows — as in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" — aren't going to pay any screenwriters' bills.

But the nominations and success of "West Wing" should serve to make us all admit that we don't really enjoy watching actual "reality," as in seeing Bob the next-door neighbor replace the engine on his lawn mower, but rather that we enjoy watching some network's idea of reality via a neatly edited month or two on a tropical island where no one is going to starve to death and Band-Aids are readily available if you get blisters. Let's face it: If we really liked reality programs (notice the absence of quotation marks, indicating genuine realism), C-Span would be the most popular network on television.

Just think of it: We could sit around and watch our senators and congresspeople debate water-usage laws and legislative procedures. No makeup! No Band-Aids! No product placement! All absolutely real!! All absolutely boring.