Raise Your Voice, Change the Debate

After watching cosmetic surgery shows jeopardize women’s health, dating shows treat single women as pathetic losers, and various cable shows portray men of color like buffoons, criminals and thugs, you’d probably like to give the networks an earful. I say, go for it!

The following tips will help you effectively communicate with media owners, execs, producers, and if you choose, embedded sponsors (product placement advertisers) of reality programming. You can find most media addresses online. You can also use this as a guide to craft successful, publishable letters to the editor. Print may be a dying medium, but millions of people still read newspapers and magazines every day, and it’s an important medium through which to change the public debate. These tips will also help you get taken more seriously if you are writing to register your concerns directly with the networks and  advertisers themselves.

How to Write a Protest Letter

Be firm but polite:

Make your case without insults, rants, or excessive profanity. Nothing makes it easier for editors and producers to dismiss your argument than name-calling.

Good idea: “It’s ridiculous that forty years after the birth of the women’s movement, shows like The Bachelor, More to Love, and Bridezillas are trying to convince us that American women have zero ambition and zero self-respect. This isn’t ‘reality,’ it’s just Mad Men without the cool clothes, furniture, or SA G actors.”

Bad idea: “Who the hell green-lit The Bachelor, More to Love, and Bridezillas? Those are some of the most fucking worthless pieces of shit to ever appear on TV. Go to hell, you woman-hating douchebags!”

Good idea: “America has progressed so far as a nation since the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and minstrel shows. Yet the same year our country elects our first African American president, America’s Next Top Model puts contestants in blackface, and VH1 and MTV portray young Black and Latino men predominately as criminals, thugs, and buffoons. Your viewers deserve better.”

Bad idea: “Everyone involved with Flavor of Love, Real Chance of Love, and From G’s to Gents might as well join the KKK, you racist jackass bigots!”

Be realistic but optimistic:

Don’t expect networks to change their entire business model overnight based on one letter. Do explain why you find certain programming problematic and request more creative, engaging entertainment options.

Demanding that Fox, ABC, and VH1 never air another reality show will get you nowhere. You’ll be taken more seriously if you protest specific reality series that you find offensive, or that insult your intelligence—and explain why those shows do viewers a disservice. Remind the networks that creative, intelligent sitcoms and dramas are beloved by large audiences: Lost, The West Wing, Glee, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and new media programming such as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog—all of these shows had unique premises or unusual formats and became either smash hits or cult favorites.

List some current or canceled scripted series you found funny, compelling, and  well written, and ask for more quality programs in that vein.

Practice positive reinforcement:

Be constructive if possible.

Explain that you don’t have a problem with the concept of unscripted entertainment, just the way most reality shows beat us over the head with damaging stereotypes and blatant product plugs. Highlight elements of any reality programs you may consider positive, such as Project Runway’s focus on talent, or comedian Margaret Cho’s funny and upbeat The Cho Show. Encourage more programming that emphasizes humor and skill, rather than humiliation and sensationalism.

Choose your battles:

Identify areas where advocacy can make a difference.

While we’d all like to see television programming that is completely free of commercial influence, demanding that the networks reject all advertising will just give them a good giggle. However, if you favor transparency over propaganda and want media companies to maintain clear distinctions between content and advertising, support efforts to demand full disclosure of brand integration in entertainment and news content.

Expose the profit motive:

Let corporate media owners know that you understand reality TV is created to meet advertisers’ needs, not our desires.

Tell the networks you’re not buying what they’re selling. Monitor the ratings for yourself (Nielsen numbers aren’t hard to find); tell the networks and the entertainment press that you notice when they’re keeping salacious reality shows on air because they’re cheap, even though they’re ratings flops. Ask how much money their product placement sponsors have paid to integrate their brands into these programs, and expose how viewers lose out when profit is the only consideration behind the development of media content.

Avoid overgeneralization:

Don’t complain that ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX “never” include people of color in their reality series, or “always” ignore lesbian, gay, and bisexual participants. Yes, broadcast network reality shows are overwhelmingly white and hetero (unlike some diverse casts on VH1, MTV, or Bravo). But tokenism and marginalization aren’t the same as complete invisibility. Language like “all” and “none” gives executives an easy out—they can point to one transgender housemate on one season each of America’s Next Top Model or The Real World, or a few Black, Latina, or Asian women quickly eliminated on The Bachelor, to “prove” that your complaint doesn’t apply to their network.

Keep it concise and informative:

If your goal is publication in a print or online news outlet’s letters page, a well-documented paragraph or two will always be better received than an emotional three-page manifesto. Sticking to one or two main points will get a busy editor to read through to the end.

Imagine better possibilities:

Can you imagine reality shows that aren’t exploitative, but fun, engaging, even positive? Well, don’t just critique: Play amateur producer. Think people would watch Greening America, a game show in which towns race to make their homes, schools, public buildings, and offices the most environmentally friendly in the country, or Heart Smart, a lifestyle series following the dating lives of an ethnically and physically diverse group of comedians, professors, artists, and others with above-average intelligence and humor? How about Miss American Dream: Women compete to find creative, innovative solutions to pressing social problems; no one gets voted off, and each week the show’s sponsors invest in a different winner’s project? There’s plenty of drama, emotion, and laughs to be plumbed from actual reality—we’ve just been conditioned to believe that “drama” means manufactured fights, manipulation, and humiliation of the weak or oppressed. Along with your complaints about the way reality TV has played out so far, pitch positive alternatives.


Nothing peeves an editor faster than typos and bad grammar.