‘Unscripted’ TV shows have saturated the airwaves to the point that viewers are hitting the remote to find relief.
BY MICHAEL STOREY ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Too much "reality" TV will turn your brain to mush.
It’s an irrefutable scientific fact that an hour of Fear Factor causes seizures in nematodes and kills billions of brain cells in laboratory rats.
These, of course, are not the same rats that were pureed in a blender and consumed by the Fear Factor contestants in the "Victoria’s Secret Models/Hooters Gals/Miss USA Contestants/Playboy Playmates" episode.
OK. Maybe some of that is made up. But any viewer worth a Nielsen rating ought to realize reality shows are the junk food on the TV buffet.
That’s not to say there aren’t good reality programs, but you can count them on one hand.
Genre glut? According to one Web site that tracks these things, there have been more than 160 "reality" programs since the boom began about five years ago. More are on the way. Is there hope this video excess is nearing its natural end?
What, exactly, is "reality" TV? The term covers a lot of ground.
In its broadest definition, "reality television" simply features the fortunes of "real" people — as opposed to actors or fictional characters.
NBC calls it "alternative programming" and others refer to them as "unscripted" shows.
Whatever the label, viewers expecting actual reality in reality programming are being naive. These programs may not be scripted, but they are still meticulously edited to enhance the show’s drama or to create characters viewers can love, hate or relate to.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, breaks reality TV down into three convenient categories — documentary style, hidden camera and game shows.
The documentary style uses the camera as a passive observer and allows the viewer to watch as events unfold. Examples would be MTV’s The Real World and The Restaurant.
Sub-categories include historical re-creations (PBS’ Frontier House), dating shows (The Bachelor), law enforcement programs (Cops), makeovers (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and lifestyle change (Trading Spouses).
It also includes the increasingly-inane "docusoaps" — vanity projects where cameras follow has-been celebrities around (The Osbournes, The Surreal Life, the forthcoming Chasing Farrah) who hope to resurrect their flagging careers.
Hidden camera programs began with the original Candid Camera and continue with such modern — and decidedly meaner — incarnations as The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, Scare Tactics and Punk’d.
Finally, the game show category also includes talent searches — The Amazing Race, American Idol, The Apprentice — and even the reality spoofs, such as Joe Schmo.
LET’S GET REAL
Where did the current reality glut start? It all began with PBS and TV’s first reality show, An American Family.
The 12-part series featuring the imploding Loud family aired in 1973. Viewers watched mesmerized and the reality groundwork was laid.
Next, let’s blame corporate consolidation and Regis Philbin.
When Philbin and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire hit the ABC airwaves in the summer of 1999, America seemingly couldn’t get enough. Suddenly, an unscripted program (albeit a trivia game show) was the hottest prime-time ticket on the tube.
Desperate networks with new owners and tighter budgets lusted for ABC’s bottom line — a white-hot program that cost a fraction of a single prime-time drama to produce.
The reality machine started cranking out the concepts and reworking shows from Europe. It cranked and copied and cranked some more.
Many fizzled, but it was no big deal if a reality show failed. It was quickly discarded and another slapped in its place. After all, the network’s investment was minimal but the potential rewards astronomical.
CBS’ Survivor, for example, debuted in May 2000 and has been a top-rated show ever since. Season 10 premiered Feb. 17 and at least two more have already been scheduled following that.
American Idol, another tweak of a British import, premiered on Fox in June 2002 and became an instant sensation. It continues to do well.
Last month’s fourth season Idol debut was seen by a stunning 33.6 million viewers. To put that in perspective, on that night Fox had more viewers than the other five broadcast networks combined.
The problem is that for every well-produced Survivor, there is a raft of vapid copycats such as I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!; Boot Camp; or the voyeuristic Big Brother.
For every well-received Apprentice, we have failed knockoffs such as The Benefactor and The Rebel Billionaire — even wacky parodies such as My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss.
Why so many? Because not only are the shows inexpensive to produce, but TV is a notoriously derivative medium. It has been from the beginning.
Gunsmoke, for example, debuted in 1955 and became TV’s first hit adult Western. By 1959 there were 30 prime-time Westerns on the tube.
It’s no wonder that today we not only have Fox’s Nanny 911, but ABC’s Supernanny. We have ABC’s Wife Swap and Fox’s Trading Spouses.
And there was Fox’s boxing series, The Next Great Champ (banished after four episodes to Fox Sports Net), that’ll be compared to NBC’s The Contender debuting March 7.
UPN had success with America’s Next Top Model, so NBC upped the ante with Sports Illustrated : Swimsuit Model Search.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Some of the more outrageous reality examples fall in the "dating /relationship" category. They aspire to emulate ABC’s relatively tame and successful The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, but simply come off as base and cheesy.
These fantasy shows usually depict a Prince Charming searching for his Cinderella (or vice versa). Millions watch these silly, fabricated TV romances even though they surely must realize the couples are not going to get married.
Yes. Sadly, the couples only stay together for the sake of television. Then they quietly part ways.
Bachelorettes in Alaska, Outback Jack and UPN’s Chains of Love were dating variations that bordered on parody.
The Littlest Groom even featured a matchmaking series for "little people," and Average Joe had a stunned ex-cheerleader being drooled over by a gaggle of geeks instead of the dozen studly jocks she expected.
GOING FOR THE KIDS
It’s when the networks attempt to appeal to the elusive and coveted younger demographic that these programs spill over into tasteless sexual escapades, innuendo and sensationalism.
Bravo’s Boy Meets Boy was a gay dating series where 15 suitors sought the favors of the star. But (gasp) some of the dudes were only pretending to be gay!
That’s similar to Fox’s Playing It Straight (killed after three episodes), where a hot chick had to use her "gaydar" to discern which of her suitors was straight and which gay.
Then there was Temptation Island, where the premise was to entice "committed" couples with buffed babes and ripped dudes to see if their relationships would weather the inducement to stray.
Finally, Fox rolled out the now-infamous Married By America in 2003. The network went way over the line in the eyes of the Federal Communications Commission with racy bachelor party scenes.
Sure, the strippers were covered with whipped cream and the nudity was digitally obscured, but the FCC, in this post-wardrobe malfunction world, was not amused.
A hefty $1.18 million fine was slapped on Fox and its affiliates. The network is appealing that decision.
HOPE ON THE HORIZON
Slipping ratings are the first indications that reality programming may have peaked. Only ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a tear-streaked, feelgood update of the 1950’s Queen For a Day, has shown growth this season.
Survivor lost viewers last season. The Bachelor dropped an astonishing third of its audience. Even Fear Factor, with its spider-covered, entrail-eating contestants, lost 2.5 million viewers last year.
The Jan. 20 debut of NBC’s The Apprentice 3 was seen by 15.6 million, but it was still trounced in the ratings by a repeat of CSI.
One problem is increasing viewer apathy. Why should viewers even bother to watch a new reality show when it could be gone tomorrow? For example, CBS’ much-hyped Wickedly Perfect was banished to the Saturday night dead zone after three weeks of declining ratings.
Fox’s recent Who’s Your Daddy?, an abysmal exercise in DNA testing and bad taste, was so unwatched that the network shelved five unseen episodes.
And CBS killed The Will after the first episode bombed. A top network honcho later admitted the show was "very bad." If so, why was it on the schedule in the first place?
Perhaps the reality saturation point has finally been reached. Sixty percent of Fox’s lineup last November consisted of reality programming.
"We drifted to too much on the unscripted side," Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman admitted to TV critics gathered in Los Angeles recently. "But I think the audience expects loud things from Fox. Sometimes they work... and sometimes they don’t."
Anybody remember Fox’s Mr. Personality hosted by Monica Lewinsky?
There is also a welcome resurgence of scripted series this season. ABC (finally recovering from Millionaire overload) is in the unique position of having two new freshman hits, Lost and Desperate Housewives. Other dramas, such as NBC’s Medium, are also doing well.
But don’t expect reality programs to vanish anytime soon. There are too many hours of TV to fill and with dozens of cable options luring viewers away, the networks will continue searching for the Next Big Thing that’ll bring the audience back.
But if you’re hooked, Fox Networks Group is launching an all-reality digital channel this summer.
Imagine — 24/7 of Joe Millionaire, Forever Eden, Love Cruise and Celebrity Boxing (featuring Tonya Harding vs. Paula Jones).
If we’re lucky, there’ll even be all-night marathons of When Animals Attack or Are You Hot: The Search for America’s Sexiest People.
Yeah, I sort of miss Lorenzo Lamas and his cellulite-seeking laser pointer