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Coping with Reality TV
Reversing the downward spiral of unscripted television.

by Mark D. Johnson
January 30, 2005

Is Reality TV getting worse? I’ve advocated some the better unscripted shows TV has to offer, but I have to admit that the trashier elements that gave the genre its low-brow reputation have gotten trashier. Just as Jerry Springer’s over-the-top sleazefest poisoned the whole well for daytime talk shows, the coarseness of the more prurient reality hits has crept into more respectable shows, making many of the better examples increasingly unpalatable and less family-friendly.
According to a study released last summer by the Parents Television Council, Reality TV shows are substantially more vulgar than scripted shows, and instances of profanity and sexual content on unscripted shows increased well over 200% since a similar study conducted in 2002. (The study did not include makeover shows or talent competition shows like “American Idol,” in which obscenities are rare.)
At a time when it is said that the networks are skittish regarding indecency and FCC fines, it should be noted that as long as the profanity is bleeped and the nudity is digitally obscured, the networks don’t consider such things to be indecent. Some of us beg to differ. The standard method of bleeping profanity, in which the beginning or ending of the word or phrase is still audible, leaves the viewer with no doubt as to what was said. And the blurring or pixilation of nudity leaves little to the imagination. In the minds of network executives, this form of self-censorship equates to family-appropriate viewing.
Whether or not the increase in obscenity is related to Reality’s overall ratings decline this season is not evident, but networks should consider the possibility. While novelty stunts like “Joe Millionaire” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé” hooked the curious the first time around, follow-up efforts failed miserably. A more recent eyebrow-raiser on Fox, “Who’s Your Daddy?” (woman identifies her biological father in a game show format, wins $100,000), was a ratings dud. But Reality producers are undeterred: a new show in development has men competing to become a sperm donor – the parenthood of a child determined by “Bachelorette”-style eliminations, all for the sake of our entertainment.
Since these shows have little to no afterlife in syndication or DVD sales, much importance is placed on succeeding the first time around, with the hope of producing additional installments. If studios believe that outrageousness is the only answer to the downward trend of Reality ratings, they will run the genre into the ground, forcing some worthy shows off the air in the process. Not that controversial content is the only factor hurting unscripted TV: poor casting and a lack of imagination plague even some of the best offerings, like “Survivor.”
So how, then, does Reality TV climb out of the hole it dug itself into? I have a few suggestions:
Ten Ways to Improve Reality TV
  1. Make quality, not provocativeness, the top priority.
    If networks were more selective about what unscripted shows make it to the air, allowing only a small number of high-quality shows on their schedules, Reality TV would be much more respected. Do away with the cheap, imitative production values that lead discriminating viewers to conclude that if a show looks bad, it is bad, and a waste of time. Shows need to get more stylish and creative to differentiate themselves visually from the stereotypical low-brow fare. Of course, you’ll need substance to go along with the style. Over the past four years, the quality shows have become franchises with longevity. The cheap efforts fade away.
  2. Hold Reality cast members to a code of conduct.
    Currently, producers hope and pray for bad behavior among their cast and deliberately cast people with that potential, assuming that translates into big ratings. Some shows are next to nothing without bad behavior (“Big Brother,” “The Real World”). While promiscuity and verbal abuse will always attract some, the cultural winds are blowing the other way. Find another way to make cast interaction interesting.
  3. Don’t rush the next installment.
    NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” had a relatively successful summer run, so they churned out a third season last fall to keep the momentum going. The show promptly jumped the shark, and the franchise is dead. “Survivor,” “Amazing Race,” and “The Apprentice,” are all starting new seasons almost immediately after the previous season. Anyone recall when a show called “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” wore out its welcome? Among the hit shows, only “American Idol” seems to understand that absence makes the heart grow fonder. (Okay, “Big Brother” only comes around once a year also, but I’m not convinced that anyone actually looks forward to it.)
  4. Don’t overhype.
    We’re told the next “Survivor” will be radically different this time around. The problem is, “Survivor” has made so many unfulfilled promises that no one believes the hype anymore. “The Apprentice” does a far better job in its promos: “Apprentice 2” had two board room scenes that actually lived up to the hype. Don’t promise viewers more than you can deliver.
  5. Don’t clone successful shows.
    They’re never as good. “The Apprentice” inspired ABC’s “The Benefactor,” with Mark Cuban, and Fox’s “Rebel Billionaire,” with Richard Branson. Viewers wisely stayed away. Fox stole ABC’s “Wife Swap” concept and rushed its version, “Trading Spouses,” to the air prior to “Wife Swap’s” debut. The result was a show inferior to the original and a lawsuit from ABC.
  6. Get more intellectual.
    That may seem like foolhardy advice in the TV world, but after the recent success of entertaining documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Supersize Me, viewers might be ready for similar fare on television. Give us a break from the competitive nature of most unscripted shows. It might even attract the throngs of people who currently consider themselves above Reality TV.
  7. Make the challenges more interesting and original.
    This is primarily a memo to the producers of “Survivor.” I, for one, am growing very tired of the endless variations on a theme that comes with each installment.
  8. No more 3 hour finales.
    Please. The “Survivor”/“Apprentice” tradition of a two-hour finale immediately followed by a one-hour cast reunion is overkill. It tries the patience of even the most diehard fans.
  9. Reduce blatant padding to stretch out the show.
    So many commercials, so little substance. The most guilty shows here are “Fear Factor” and “American Idol.” A full hour voting results show on the latter amounts to psychological abuse.
  10. No more con shows.
    The second installments of deception programs like “Joe Millionaire” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé” tend to bomb because viewers have learned that the payoff isn’t very satisfying. In fact, it’s generally uncomfortable to see the truth revealed.
Sadly, I don’t foresee the television industry in general heeding any of this advice. But there will be two or three shows that get it right for the most part, including “The Amazing Race,” which has won the Emmy Award for Best Reality Competition Program twice in a row and has finally found a sizable audience. If only more shows followed their example…

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