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The Real Real World  

Forget Survivor: Sports is the best reality television around

By Richard Hoffer

Sports Illustrated

The games we watch, with the possible exception of those involving the Clippers, are unscripted. Anything can happen. Actually, that's why we watch them. To see if Kirk Gibson, standing on a crippled leg, can turn a crucial World Series at bat into a home run limp or if former supermarket bag boy Kurt Warner can lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Reality programming is what sports are, raw feeds that tease us with life's preposterous unpredictability.

You wonder how television execs went so long ignoring that principle in the rest of their lineups. Network TV has been as formulaic as a Globetrotters game, punch lines and hugs so rigorously plotted that the shows are virtually indistinguishable (and their ratings mostly in the tank). But now, hoping to arrest the decline in viewership, the networks have been copping the excitement of live sports with some novelty productions of their own -- not wholly unedited contests, but free-for-alls nonetheless. The heightened viewership (voyeurship?) of such shows as Survivor and Big Brother -- which feature semireal people in semireal situations -- ought to validate the venerable approach to sports broadcasts, which has been to trust in the drama of the games and the people playing them. But isn't it strange that just as entertainment shows begin to appropriate the spontaneity of sports, sports shows are increasingly aping the prefab plotting of your average sitcom?

Not that the Clippers don't play out like an old I Love Lucy ("Don-ald!"), but do we need U.S. track superstar Marion Jones scheduled as a September miniseries, the kind of treatment NBC promises to provide from Sydney? Olympic coverage has always been massaged a little, as if the guys paying billions for broadcast rights were worried that we might not be riveted by the world's best athletes. So it was that their productions came to be marked by orchestral arrangements, gauzy images and breathy hosts who imagine they're channeling Orson Welles.

Well, that's fine for the Olympics, but it's not fine when ordinary games start getting dressed up like Terms of Endearment, all those pregame and postgame features telling us when to laugh and when to cry. The games are fun enough, always have been. Just leave them alone. Or we'll vote you off the island.

Issue date: July 17, 2000

For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, July 12. Click here to subscribe to SI.

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