The Death of Reality TV? Is It Really Too Much to Ask?

I don’t like reality television. First of all, it bores me. Second, I think it’s responsible for making a lot of people famous that shouldn’t even be on the celebrity radar of the vast majority of society. People like Paris Hilton (for her Simple Life show), or Heidi and Spencer. Or the Gosselins. Or any of the Hills people or the City people or Brody Jenner (he’s in a separate category) and many, many others. And there’s just so many reality shows. There’s shows about losing weight, finding love, getting married, racing, surviving, business, living in cool cities, living in bad conditions, dancing, being ugly, being pretty, getting rich, etc. It’s so exhausting. I get that it’s cheaper than scripted television, but that’s still not enough of a justification for putting on a show like The Bachelor and exposing us to idiotic girls who ‘like bears’. What kind of bears, you ask? Well, ‘all bears’. Seriously. She likes bears. God will smite us down for this nonsense.

I remember when the very first Survivor premiered. I watched it. We all did. I believe it really heralded a new dawn for reality television. Then about 70 billion more Survivor seasons premiered and I stopped caring. But other people, including the networks, started paying attention. Now, the only reality show I watch is Celebrity Apprentice, and I admit this with shame.

So imagine my glee when I read an article in Variety, proclaiming that ratings for reality shows are on the decline. Thank you, Jebus! Could it be? Could this horrible plight on television finally be coming to a close? Stop getting mad at me, reality lovers. Do you really need 14 hours of Dancing with the Stars every week? Because once the ratings start to drop, the networks really start feeling it:

When a scripted show starts to weaken, it reps just one hour in need of a little TLC. But when a reality series begins to crack, it’s a much bigger problem.

The networks have filled their primetime skeds with extended hours of their top reality franchises — and when a franchise begins to fade, that might rep as many as three hours a week in need of fixing.

It’s not a new phenomenon — ABC learned it the hard way earlier this decade, when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” collapsed, turning the Alphabet’s schedule into a Swiss cheese-like mess.

But this time around, every network (save CBS) has at least one franchise that takes up multiple hours.

During fall-TV’s premiere week, ABC was riding high thanks to the boffo launches of “Modern Family,” “Cougar Town” and “FlashForward.” Yet the net was still down from last year — and much of that could be blamed on “Dancing with the Stars,” which repped a full 23% of its sked.

“One half-hour of ‘˜Modern Family’isn’t going to help you if five hours of ‘˜Dancing with the Stars’is starting to drop,” one rival says.

Fox is serving three hours of “So You Think You Can Dance” starting this month — and “American Idol” will once again gobble up a big chunk of the network sked come January.

And don’t get me started on American Idol pre-empting some of my favorite shows on Fox. Fox won’t air President Obama’s televised broadcast, but they’ll completely rearrange their prime-time schedule for American Idol. Talk about mixed up priorities (although, to be fair, I enjoyed Adam Lambert’s performance of ‘Mad World’, which I watched on YouTube and not on American Idol).

It warms my heart to see so many good new shows premiering this season. Dramas like The Good Wife, or hilarious comedies like Modern Family. I like FlashForward and The Vampire Diaries and a ton of other great, new shows. It makes me hopeful that one day scripted television will be dominant again. But then I read things like this:

Over at the Peacock, while most of the attention is focused on NBC’s over-reliance on “Jay Leno,” the net has long aired two-hour editions of “The Biggest Loser,” and has another two-hour “Celebrity Apprentice” set to return later this season.

It’s foolish to sound the death knell for the genre: When the dust settles this season, it will once again be reality TV that dictates the network scorecard. And more so than other genres, reality TV, because it’s a diverse genre, has proven to be incredibly resilient over the course of this decade.

But when a reality show is a smash, the upside is enormous. “Idol” has made Fox a dominant demo player for much of the decade, even in years when its scripted stable was slumping. And it has fueled the News Corp. bottom line via albums, online music sales and concert tours.
As a result, the nets can’t resist doubling down on their veteran reality titles. For one thing, the second hour of a reality show will do better than almost anything else you might put behind that show’s first hour. Economically, it’s also much cheaper to extend one hour into two, rather than pay for a fully different show that would likely fail anyway.

” ‘˜CSI’is down, ‘˜Desperate Housewives’is down,” one exec says. “Every show on TV is down, barring ‘˜NCIS’and ‘˜Big Bang Theory.’There’s been no real breakout hit on network TV in any genre over the last five years. There have been just as many successful new reality shows at the same level as anything else. NBC would be off the map without ‘˜Biggest Loser’right now. These are staples of network TV. Without them, network TV would be dead.”

Depressing, right? The fact that network television is so heavily dependent on reality TV. What happened to fun line-ups like TGIF, when tweens and teens were glued to their televisions on Friday nights? Now Friday nights is where TV shows go to die and we all know it. Now we’ve got “results shows”, which bore me to tears for an hour until the last five minutes. It’s all FILLER. It’s people loving the fact that housewives of some city (Orange County, Atlanta….take your pick) are duking it out on TV.

What is the fascination with reality TV? Yes, I’ll admit that watching talent on shows like Idol or SYTYCD can be exciting. But most reality TV is scripted – and if not scripted, per se, at least forced and arranged. So we can’t really say “oh, well, I like reality TV because it’s real”. It’s not. Sorry.

I wish networks would rejig their schedules to include more hours of quality, scripted entertainment. I wish well-written shows like Castle, which also has a great cast, got better ratings than reality shows about forcing people to fall in love and propose within a matter of weeks. The recent success of new shows makes me hopeful, but only time will tell. In the meantime, thanks, CBS, for creating Survivor and pushing reality TV straight into the public consciousness. If it wasn’t for The Good Wife, I might never forgive you.

The rest of you might disagree. But that’s your right.

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  1. Rueben October 6, 2009
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