When you turn on your TV to watch a sitcom, you expect to find a sitcom. Same with dramas, sports and news. So why do we not find reality when we tune in a “reality” show? Probably because the network marketing people felt that labeling programs as “concocted” or “contrived” might not have the audience-grabbing effect that so-called reality does.
The “reality” craze has been rolling since CBS’ “Survivor” surprised the programming world in the summer of 2000. Ever the copycats, programmers at each network jumped to fill their lineups with “reality.” Several new reality shows are kicking off in January, and others are slated in the coming weeks.
These shows make sense for networks because they are relatively cheap to produce, especially considering top prime-time actors want $1 million per episode. Further, they attract the young adult demographic that advertisers prize, and they are easier to throw together than creating entertaining drama or comedy.
So this kind of programming has become a staple of network television. But let’s stop calling it something it isn’t. Surprise! “The Simple Life” with Paris Hilton included staged events. An upcoming NBC series will feature 42-year-old Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee as a “college student.” Of course, Tommy is not officially enrolled, leaves campus randomly to do his other business, has his campus “friends” chosen for him and has multiple takes of his “real” college experiences.
The supposed regular people who get cast in “reality” shows go through auditions and are carefully selected by producers to play certain roles. Writers prepare 100-page outlines of “unscripted” episodes with suggested outcomes and commentary.
The only real aspects of “reality” television are the ethical issues they keep raising. As producers compete for a generally fickle audience, the content and themes of shows become increasingly bizarre and edgy. The recent Fox offering, “Who’s Your Daddy?” features a young woman who was adopted as an infant trying to identify her biological father from a field of eight men. Thankfully, adoption advocates and others who respect human dignity have blasted the program, and Fox affiliate WRAZ-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., kept it off the air. Sadly, no other Fox affiliates dumped it.
It’s too early to tell for sure, but “reality” fatigue might be starting to creep into the viewing public. Ratings for reality shows last fall were generally down. ABC’s audience for “The Bachelor” was down a third, and NBC’s “The Apprentice” was down 18 percent. Highly promoted shows like ABC’s “The Benefactor” and Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” were ratings wrecks. The recent premiere of “Who’s Your Daddy?” finished last in its time slot with less than 5 percent of the nation watching.
Hopefully, audiences are sending network executives back to the drawing board to produce some quality programming that can at least be accurately labeled.
by Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication, DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind.