"Reality" TV -- Not as new as you think

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Reality TV seems to be the buzzword of the day. Every network has them from network to cable and it seems to be all anyone is talking about lately. You would think that the networks had discovered some new form of entertainment that took the world by storm. Who was the genius that thought of doing this? Is it voyeurism that makes us watch or just plain curiosity? Perhaps it is the pathetic nature of the other network offerings lately that has turned us to this genre. Do we enjoy seeing our fellow humans suffer? You bet! Not only do we love to watch it, we all want to be in it. Reality TV shows are flooded with applications and only a select few make the final cut. All of the shows we talk about at the water cooler seem to be reality TV. What is the fascination with it and where did it all begin are the questions to be answered.

What is reality TV anyway? Reality TV is a program cast with real people, not actors. Usually the folks on the program are unpaid, which is a great boon for producers who are able to retain more of the money from the sponsors. The people are usually either placed in competition with each other, caught in embarrassing moments, or just spied on in their everyday lives. The reality TV of today is intense, the networks all raising the bar to compete with each other. Usually there is some sort of cash prize to be won, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money that is being made from advertising and endorsements. Some shows, like The Real World, don’t offer any prize at all, what a great income generator for MTV! Sitcoms and dramas have to pay dozens of actors exorbitant amounts of money regulated by unions, it’s no wonder that reality TV is so attractive when you consider the strikes that occur from time to time. Real people don’t work for unions and can’t demand more money!

You might think that reality TV started with Survivor or MTV’s The Real World, but you’d be wrong. Reality TV has been around since the beginning of television and even before that. Who can forget one of the most famous reality TV shows, Candid Camera. Allen Funt was hosting reality TV way back in 1948 and he began the idea on a radio show he did in the service. Watching our fellow man in embarrassing or dangerous situations has always been a fascination. Reality TV probably dates back to the time of the gladiators when we threw muscle-bound men into arenas to slaughter each other while we cheered them on Perhaps reality TV began with the Christians being thrown to the lions! There’s no question about it, we’ve had a morbid curiosity since the beginning of time.

What's more powerful in reality-based programming is that even though the situations are set up and manipulated to guarantee a result for content, we are watching people with real emotions in circumstances that create real drama. As long as we continue to be fascinated with the human condition, and have an appetite for entertainment, there will always be some evolving format of a reality show.

Also of current issue with Reality TV programmers is the pressure brought on by large advertising corporations, who previous to reality tv knew exactly what content they were investing in. For example, if an advertiser is buying ad time from NBC during a "Friends" episode, they know the exact market to be viewing, and the content that will be delivered. With limited run reality series, and many that have been social experiments or practical jokes, Advertisers have been critical of the amount of scheduling a Network head will reserve for Reality TV Shows as opposed to developing new hit scripted shows. But what neither can escape is the public appetite for the genre. As a result, we've seen, and will continue to see new reality-based formats that carry a brand product integral to the story or content of the show.

You might remember some of America’s favorite reality TV shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos, or America’s Most Wanted. Popular shows like COPS spun off dozens of copycats and put fuel on the fire of day time talk shows like Sally Jesse Raphael, where people aired their dirty laundry to the nation. The reality TV shows of prime time are a bit different now. Reality TV programs have casting agents to find the most attractive, interesting or charismatic people to boost the ratings of their television show. In order to get on one of these shows, you have to first fill out applications, then, if your application is interesting enough, you may even be asked to audition. Only the most television worthy folks make it on to the screen. Casting directors choose candidates based on their personalities and how well they will conflict with the other cast members. Entertainment value is key. Making the cut for a reality TV show can mean instant stardom and opportunity. Fame and book deals are likely to follow, as well as guest spots on soap operas and commercials.

As more and more reality TV programs pop up, the competition becomes fierce to grab the most viewers. The programs are increasing in shock value and the prize amounts are rising too. The prize for the best video on America’s Funniest Home Videos used to be a measly $10,000, compare that to the one million dollar prize offered by CBS’s Survivor. The shows are pushing the limits of human endurance and also the limits of the network censors. The recent Temptation Island was so risqué that many sponsors pulled out. The future of reality TV seems lucrative, it grabs the most ratings and we’ve been after this brand of entertainment since the beginning of time. It will be interesting to see where it’s headed. Reality TV gives the idea of a ‘Big Brother’ a whole new meaning, we used to be afraid of having someone watching our every move, but we sure do want to see someone else’s.

Christine Reed -- 2002 Pagewise

The following are quotes from the top executives in the entertainment industry to give you an insiders perspective on the current state and future of Reality TV:


"The genre of reality television has broadened out to a point where it's no longer one or the other. It's like saying that because the Simpsons does so well there's only so much of an audience for animation. It's all just entertainment"

Mike Darnell - Sr. VP Alternative Series, Fox Network


"I was producing reality shows before the boom, and I'll be producing them after the boom. I constantly look for new ways to twist and turn the genre in different directions so reality TV remains unpredictably delicious. You have to continue to reinvent yourself in this business to stay on top".

Bruce Nash - Nash Entertainment


"After all the hand-wringing in the press about reality TV, the simple fact is that when an inspirational show like "American Idol" can galvanize an audience of this size, it's good for broadcast television."

Sandy Grushow - Chairman, Fox Television Entertainment Group / Daily Variety-


"There's no way the networks are going to ignore a genre that has this kind of appeal. Our 18-34 numbers are up across the board, and we credit that to "The Bachelor" as a promotional platform for other scripted shows."

Susan Lyne - President, ABC Entertainment TV Group


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