Thursday, April 21, 2005

The end of reality television?

I am sure I will not be the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but I am convinced that reality television has nearly hit its saturation point, and that it will have to recede in the next three years as a pervading trend in television. I do not think it will disappear entirely in that time, but that it will become relegated to the role of filler and become the property of the weaker national networks (ABC, Fox) and desperate cable outlets (UPN). I think that there is a strong possibility that Survivor will last only between four and six more seasons (14-16 in total), and that its exodus within the next three years will pave the way for other high-profile shows to end, or at least to become rarer (i.e. producing only one season of The Apprentice per calendar year instead of two). Here are some reasons why I think this:
1. The games are getting tired. Though Survivor 10 is demonstrating an incredible amount of creativity on the part of the designers of the challenges and course of the game, other shows are not succeeding as well. The Apprentice? Getting tired after three seasons. How many more product pitches and inept candidates can we bear to watch? The Amazing Race? Still exciting, though it's now in season 7, and showing signs of age - bringing in Boston Rob and Amber just reeks of publicity-mongering. The Contender is fresh and exciting, but who knows how long that will last? And the champ, Survivor? Before this edition, the show was definitely showing signs of age (think Thailand (5), Amazon (6), and Vanuatu (9) ).
2. The contestants are getting tired. It seems more and more that all the great personalities have been taken, and that the people who are on the shows now are often just shells of previous people. Again, take the example of Survivor. Most of the people on this season just aren't that interesting, and it is showing in the play. This particular edition has been mostly devoid of strategy, and there is only one person that I would say should have made it further that did not (Bobby Jon). Still, there are several people that should not have made it this far. What does that mean? That the people playing the game are essentially not worthy of it. Think back to Survivor 2 in the Outback. Most people still could name several of the contestants. Now, they're barely blips on the radar. Occasionally, there's a real character, like Omarosa on Apprentice 1 or Ami and Rory on Survivor 9, but the people are mostly forgettable now.
3. The concepts are getting tired. Okay, so there were not too many concepts to begin with, but it's getting tired. Take the "talent" reality shows for example. There are shows for pop (American Idol), rock (Rock Star), country (Nashville Star), Vegas (The Entertainer), and even hip-hop (finding a new member for TLC). Even the hoax shows have pretty much run their gamut (Invasion Iowa being the apex of the Reese-Warnick trilogy run on Spike TV). The concepts are being stretched and squeezed of every last drop, and there doesn't seem to be too much left in the bucket.
4. The audience is getting tired. Most of us only have room for one or two reality shows in our schedule; for me, it has been Survivor, the last three episodes of The Apprentice, and a hoax show (eg. Joe Schmo 2). I just can't pay attention to any more than that. And I think most people are in the same place. We're just getting spent.
5. The genre is getting tired. Most genres have had their heyday: family sitcoms (early 90s), "singles" sitcoms (mid 90s), game shows (late 90s), animated comedies (early 00's), and now reality television. Think of late 90s prime time game shows: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? had its day, and then The Weakest Link. Where are they now? Relegated to the confines of the Game Show Network. With the rise of the drama (Lost, Desperate Housewives) this year, reality television is just plain tired as a genre.

So, what's the future like? I think that each network will continue to have its reality cash cows, but that the overall proliferation of reality television will cease within two years. Honestly, it is likely that shows like Fear Factor (NBC) and The Bachelor (ABC) will continue for years as tried and true and easy to produce shows, but I think that shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Amazing Race, the top of the genre, will go out on top. It will become a genre that is the property of Fox and cable outlets, and that networks like CBS and NBC will use sparingly as ways to make money and garner ratings during sweeps. Think Survivor: Reunion, in which everyone comes back to compete in ten years in a miniseries on CBS in 2010. On that note, my thoughts for Survivor are that they should do three more "normal" seasons, but that the other seasons should be Second Chance (non-jury members on their season get a second shot), Celebrity (who doesn't want to see celebrities endure that game?), and All-Stars 2 (featuring the best from seasons 9-15 [except the two previously mentioned ideas], and possibly from earlier seasons as well that didn't appear on All-Stars 1 (eg. Jeff, Mike, Elizabeth from the Outback, Frank from Africa). But, whatever happens, by 2008, the trend should be on the way out. It will be time for the next trend in television by then. Or maybe "The Running Man"...ah, the true apex of reality television.


  1. Anonymous22.4.05

    I can't believe how much you know about the current reality TV shows. You must watch (watched) a lot of them. I admit to knowing a bit of each (seen snippets) but from what little I've seen, I have to agree with you. Actually, I sure hope you're right. I've been pretty tired of 'reality' TV. My pet peeve was Big Brother - man, that was bad!
    I'm ready for Hockey Night in Canada!

  2. Derek, my greatest wish is that your prediction will come true. It's where I've felt like we've been heading -- back toward scripted television. If that is, in fact, our direction: huzzah! Hooray for creativity and writers and real actors! Hooray for the potential return of nuance! (Has it been too long since scripted television was at the forefront? I don't think that nuance and TV really mix)

    My fear: that this downward turn in reality TV will cause some crazed network to try to revive it, by topping everyone else. Yes: The Truman Show.

    That is my fear.



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