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The cast of The Apprentice: Los Angeles.

REALITY CHEQUE: Reality TV, called a poison pill that would decimate the TV industry and drag the airwaves down into a knuckle-dragging idiot stupor when it emerged less than a decade ago, has turned into an economic bonanza for the city of Los Angeles at least, according to a story in yesterday’s L.A. Times.

The story reported the findings of a study by the city’s film office, which detailed how “the number of days spent shooting reality TV episodes in Los Angeles soared 53 per cent last year, accounting for about 40 per cent of all on-location TV production. All told, reality film crews spent the equivalent of 8,397 days filming here in 2006.”

The reality TV industry accounted for “240,000 local jobs and contributes an estimated $30 billion US into the local economy,” according to the Times piece, a boost that was much needed as feature film and commercial production has fallen, with movie sets moving to lower-cost locales elsewhere in the country, and the growth of online advertising reducing the budgets of TV commercials, who also decamped to less expensive cities.

The comparative costs of conventional versus reality TV were cited, as they have been since reality TV threatened to lay waste to the air waves — “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,” according to the Times. There are more statistics to consider, of course — a “53 per cent jump in reality TV activity compares with increases of 13 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, for sitcoms and dramas” — and (yet another) possible writers’ strike that is forcing networks and producers to order new shows in anticipation of a shutdown of much of their primetime lineup.

It’s worth remembering that reality TV first flourished in 2000, around the same time as a six-month actor’s strike — for every economic action, there is an equal economic reaction. That doesn’t mean, however, that old prejudices against reality TV — based mostly on little more than a basic distaste for its much lower perceived prestige — doesn’t remain.

“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,” Steve MacDonald, president of FilmL.A. Inc., which handles permits for much of Los Angeles County, told the Times.

Like most people, MacDonald seems to think that economic impact only works in one direction — the cost of producing reality TV, compounded by its success, and multiplied by the cost to networks of striking talent guilds, has its own very palpable economic impact, especially on networks seeing their audience share decrease and business model mutate and dissolve before their eyes.

He’d better get used to seeing more videographers following sweaty, desperate nobodies around his town, and fewer wandering villages of star trailers, honey wagons and catering trucks.