Ain't Nothing' Like the Real Thing
By Andy Edelstein
February 9, 2003
The reality of life in February 2003 is that reality TV rules. You don't hear much water-cooler talk these days about last night's "ER," but there sure are a lot of folks gabbing about why "Joe Millionaire" chose Zora.
And there's no letup. Arriving Thursday is CBS' "Survivor: Amazon," the sixth edition of the show that launched the reality trend a mere 2 1/2 years ago. Next week brings us the finales of "Joe Millionaire" and "The Bachelorette," as well as ABC's 15-night, live "Survivor" knockoff called "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here." Meanwhile, more than 20 million viewers will be watching that contest of musical dodgeball known as "American Idol." Even more reality shows are being scheduled for spring and summer.
So what does it all mean and where do we go from here? On these pages, Newsday's TV staff ponders the phenomenon that's changing the world they cover. Chief critic Noel Holston says reality's popularity is largely
age-related - and wonders what'll happen when the "'Bachelorette' generation" turns 40? Reporter Verne Gay argues that reality TV has become a full-blown genre that has become a permanent part of the TV landscape. On the other hand, critic Diane Werts maintains it's just a fad and warns that by relying on reality programming, the networks may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
As Newsday's TV editor, I'd offer my own view, but I'm too busy thinking about who Trista is going to dump Wednesday night. They Want Their Empty TV By Noel Holston
With apologies to the band R.E.M., "It's the end of TV as we've known it/
It's the end of TV as we've known it/It's the end of TV as we've known it/And I feel...resigned."
It had to happen. What goes around comes around. The times, they keep a-changin'. I didn't want to drive my father's Oldsmobile, and now the next generation doesn't want to drive mine. And I am dating myself more with every antique musical reference and slogan I trot out.
It's true, though, that TV programming is not just cyclical but generational. The medium adapts. It adapts because its business is rounding up audiences for advertisers by any means necessary (dang, another ancient catchphrase). TV networks first and foremost put on programs that young adult viewers, the most desirable viewers to advertisers, demonstrate a willingness to watch. My generation in young adulthood wanted TV that had more edge, idiosyncrasy and "realism" than "Medical Center," "My Three Sons" and "Mannix." We got "St. Elsewhere," "thirtysomething" and "NYPD Blue."
Now there's a new generation, weaned on cable, channel surfing, confessional talk and uncensored home video. Many, in my experience, are as impatient with the sentimentality and contrived unpredictability of an "ER" as many members of the previous generation were of the pat moralizing of "Marcus Welby, M.D."
Which is where "reality" programming comes in - like a tidal wave, judging from recent network announcements of midseason and summer programming. Even before Fox's "Joe Millionaire" and ABC's "The Bachelorette" became the latest manifestations of manipulated nonfiction to score fat Nielsens, network programmers were loading up schedules like King Kullen shoppers who just heard a blizzard alert.
"Everybody's looking for that quick fix, and a lot of times these shows do give you that," said Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS, for whom "Survivor" has become a crucial building block. He believes the wave "probably" will crest this year.
NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker said that his network sees "reality" programs primarily as summer filler, but he acknowledged that NBC is in "a very fortunate position" with its outsized share of TV's most popular scripted shows. If he doesn't develop reliable replacements for aging warhorses such as "Friends," he may see quick fixes in a different light.
"Reality" has some of the earmarks of a fad. Certainly, TV has a longstanding tradition of going into a copycat frenzy whenever some genre clicks, whether it's cowboys, cops or comedies about witches, genies and Martians. But this may be more than a craze or a phase. It suggests a more profound shift in programming, one that is both economic and, as noted, generational.
It's not that hits like "The Bachelorette" and "American Idol" don't attract a cross section of viewers. They do. But they are overwhelmingly popular with the younger end of the 18-49 age group that many advertisers most eagerly want to reach. They are the future. And you have to wonder if young adults who register a clear preference for "reality" shows over scripted dramas or comedies will be any more likely to embrace the latter when they turn 40 than a teenage Eminem fan is likely to develop a midlife love for Frank Sinatra - or Bruce Springsteen.
"That's the $100-billion question," said Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Entertainment Group, when I put the riddle to him last month. He said he honestly doesn't know what the answer is. At the same time, Grushow doesn't much care. He's in the business of figuring out what desirable viewers will watch and providing them with it, not in passing judgment.
Asked the same question, Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, hesitated to predict what sort of programming young adult viewers would grow into. But she obviously had given some thought to the appeal the unscripted shows hold for that segment of the audience.
"It has a lot to do with MTV," she said. "I think all the 18-34 audience grew up on 'The Real World' and 'Road Rules.' Those shows felt like they were made for them, where broadcast shows felt like their parents' shows. It's a genre that I think they feel they launched. These were shows that starred people their age - or four or five years older - and that were dealing with issues and problems that were uppermost in their minds."
Lyne doesn't believe their viewing habits today are necessarily permanent. "We all grow up and our taste in TV changes, just like our movie tastes change," she said. But she also understands and accepts the immediate reality (pardon the term) that, for viewers of "a certain age, the intensity of these 'reality' shows and the fact that they're addressing the minutiae of their lives is incredibly compelling."
So where's TV going? Contests, competitions and dramatically edited nonfiction will continue to proliferate because they're a cheap short-term fix for an industry that's finding it harder to launch scripted hits, and because the young adult audience has exhibited a fondness for such programming. Scripted programming won't die, but the broadcast networks will push the envelope so that it more closely resembles the models developed by pay-cable channels. Shows like HBO's "The Sopranos" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," although younger in aim. Shows that have a plebeian intensity similar to what Lyne sees in the "Bachelorettes" and "Survivors."
It's a reality we'll all have to face. Survival Of The Fittest By Verne Gay
Good...or bad? Horrible waste of time...or harmless waste of time? Refreshing and fun...or reckless and creepy? Go ahead. Pick a side. The debate over reality TV - or "alternative TV" or "unscripted TV" or whatever you choose to call this phenomenon - is a debate open to one and all. You have an opinion? It is, doubtless, a perfectly fine and sound opinion.
But on one question the debate is over, so don't bother. Is reality TV here to stay ... or gone tomorrow? Final answer: Here to stay. Reality has muscled its way onto the prime-time schedule, permanently taking its place with such other long-established genres as sitcoms or police dramas. There is, of course, no exact science in determining when a fad morphs into a full-fledged genre, but it certainly feels as if we're at that point now with reality. Look no further than "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol," which have reversed a faltering Fox's fortunes, while "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" have likewise perked up ABC's ratings.
It's all very simple, really. Hits beget more hits, and before long, all of TV changes and we forget that it was ever any different.
TV economics have played a key role, too. Scripted programs are expensive - $2 million per hour for a bargain-basement drama - and reality shows are marginally cheaper. So if you're a network chief who's just paid $7 million per episode for "The West Wing," you are now forced to cut costs elsewhere. How? With unscripted programs.
"Reality is a very, very potent player in the TV landscape," explains Jeff Gaspin, NBC executive vice president and alternative-programming boss. "We have not seen a number of new series like this in a long time, where in fact almost all of them are working to some degree."
The people who make TV have a poor (or perhaps selective) memory for their flops. But they always remember the winners, and always try to replicate them.
Skeptics will correctly point out that this has led to miscalculations - boom and bust cycles that are fueled by bad shows, too many of them. A year ago, the reality bust seemed to have arrived, with the likes of "Boot Camp," "Chains of Love" and "Making the Band 2." But whatever else you might think of TV executives, they are not dummies - not all of them anyway. They learn from their mistakes, and they have learned about the pitfalls of reality shows and how to avoid them. They've learned how to schedule them, how to launch them and how to structure them.
Ben Silverman, head of USA Entertainment- owned Reveille and one of reality's heavy hitters
(he brought "Survivor" to CBS) explains: "Women watch [reality] TV differently from men. Men like close-ended [shows], and women like getting invested in characters."
For this reason, Silverman is launching two shows for NBC - "The Restaurant," about a real SoHo restaurant, and those who work there, with female appeal, and "The Fast and Furious," about real drag racing, with guy appeal.
Most important, reality's big viewers, Silverman adds, are "very young." They have a radically different TV frame of reference than older viewers weaned on scripted dramas and sitcoms.
"When you look at what's happened, you have to point to the viewing patterns of kids, who grew up on VH1 and many of those channels that only had reality-type programming because it was less expensive and it was a way to distinguish themselves from broadcasters," Gaspin says. To these viewers, he adds, reality TV is hardly novel at all, and even refreshing when compared to often predictable sitcoms and dramas.
But these viewers also tend to have criminally short attention spans. They want something new, and they want it now. For reality TV, this means an accelerated "burn rate" - the old Internet buzz phrase that once referred to how quickly a dot-com company used up its venture capital.
Programmers have to burn through ideas just to keep pace. But some don't see that as a problem. In fact, Gaspin insists, "There is no shortage of ideas." But he also concedes, "You will see one idea after the other. They'll come and go in short spurts, and if they work, [we'll] do more the next time."
TVtracker.com, the leading source of program information, lists some 80 reality shows in development - possibly more shows than ever before, certainly more variations of shows than ever before. And the words "extreme," "adrenaline," "funniest," "hot," "attack," "celebrity," "shock," "stupid," and "amazing" appear in a disconcertingly large number of titles.
Certainly, all of these will not get on the air. And some that do will be dreadful. But others will become long-lasting hits. Just look at "Survivor," whose sixth edition premieres Thursday.
"Like everything else, the really good shows - whether reality or scripted - have a lot more staying power and a much slower burn rate," says David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios.
But reality programmers, he adds, "keep putting spins on [the shows] to make them fresh, and the audience is saying, 'I get it. I'm not burning out on this.'"
"The level of innovation to keep people interested ... will be big," says Michael Jackson, chairman of Universal Television Group, who built his career in British television, where reality is even bigger than here. "But reality TV ain't going away." It's Just a Vicious Circle By Diane Werts
No, it's not the end of civilization.
But "reality" TV might be the end of network prime time as we know it.
Here's the thing. Network trends are cyclical. "Real life on the screen," said Tim Brooks, Lifetime's senior vice president of research and co-author of the essential "Complete Directory of Prime Time TV Shows" history reference, "to a large extent that's where TV began, because you could just turn on a camera in the studio. There were no film shows, and there was no videotape."
Early viewers saw inexpensive slices of real life such as "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" - long before "American Idol" or "Star Search" - and "Queen for a Day." Lest anyone think today's reality shows are hitting new lows, the latter had women contestants vie for audience sympathy with teary tales of personal tragedy, destitution and woe. The most pathetic storyteller won the prize she sought.
So reality TV isn't new. It's just back. But it's back in a bigger - and badder - way. "It was easier when there were three channels and they had the only voices out there," Brooks said. "Now you've got hundreds of channels screaming at you." Because of that, "the lows in network television [ratings] have become really, really low," said Variety's TV editor Joe Adalian. "Reality is a weapon for the networks to use to stop the bleeding."
So they're firing off round after round, seemingly indiscriminately, hoping to hit the target audience.
Reality concepts flaunt an "event" aura that makes viewers want to be in on something they think everybody will be talking about tomorrow. They're immediate and they're interactive, to entice the younger viewers that networks are desperate to attract. They even rekindle the sense of community that network TV once inspired. It's comparison viewing. We each pick our favorite contestants - and pick apart the rest.
Does this mean we're all gossipmongering, amoral heathens without regard for human feelings or social boundaries? Well, was "Queen for a Day"? This is a fad, people. It's the latest, greatest hot new thing. "Whatever cycle you're in, that's what the audience is watching," said "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf. When people were saying TV comedy was dead, he noted, "the next week 'Cosby' went on and you had 20 years of comedies."
Even a reality "hit" today carries a distinct downside, however. "Nobody will watch it twice," Brooks said. "It's unrepeatable. And that can cause economic problems. The whole basis of network economics is that you've got to be able to rerun the stuff because you never make your money on the first run, you make it down the line."
WB program chief Jordan Levin warns there's no consistency. "Long-term, these are not series that create lasting relationships between our audience and our characters," he said. "Those type of emotional relationships are what really form the connectivity between us and our audience."
So the networks have a lot to lose in having their heads turned by the beautiful Nielsen numbers attached to shows featuring "real people." (And wasn't that the name of an NBC show that started its own "reality" craze around 1980?) "It can start to force you into a place where you're juggling your schedule to satisfy a very short- term fix," Levin said. Reality shows now hold many time slots that might be used to find and nurture the next generation of scripted hits (as well as keep Hollywood's creative community employed and developing). The networks should have learned this lesson with ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which ate up four weekly slots when it was hot. How many true hits has ABC found since?
Scripted shows are the broadcast networks' lifeblood, their singular identity. What else is there to distinguish them from the dozens of cable channels chipping away at their audiences? The networks' rage for reality runs the real risk of devaluing the gold standard that sets them apart. Doesn't "Fear Factor" look like something that might be on TNN? Couldn't "The Bachelorette" be on USA or Lifetime? These series don't exactly add lasting value to broadcasters' prestige. This is especially true among younger audiences who've grown up watching cable and wielding remotes. If ABC starts to look pretty much like MTV (relatively speaking), where's the cachet? Why even surf through the networks then?
And cable is already catching up in the scripted-series department. The networks can thank a previous craze for that.
"In the mid- and early '90s, when the networks had all those comedy clones of 'Seinfeld,' cable got its start in drama," historian Brooks said. From the lurid "Silk Stalkings" to the sensitive "Any Day Now" to the all-around smash "The Sopranos," cable channels gradually raised the bar in quality. And not just on HBO. Now Emmy winners such as "The Shield" are showing up on basic cable.
"The Sopranos" and "The Shield" in particular tap into what may be the crucial appeal of reality TV - its messy, chaotic, emotionally charged approximation of modern life. Perhaps it's not fiction itself that viewers are rejecting. Maybe it's just those series' tidy, measured and therefore "fake" takes on the world we experience. If visceral intensity is the thing, reality TV delivers it in droves.
So it's not the genre package that's selling. It's the content, stupid. Which is exactly what the networks are if they don't figure that out. Before it's too late.