Profit center -- and programming future
How much 'reality' TV can we survive?
(CNN) -- Real life pays real well.
Or so the broadcast networks have discovered. As it heads into its finale Thursday night, CBS' "Survivor: The Australian Outback" is the No. 1 show on television, regularly whipping longtime NBC stalwart "Friends" in its timeslot. Not long ago, Fox's "Temptation Island" and ABC's "The Mole" concluded runs with solid, if not blockbuster, ratings -- good enough for both networks to order new episodes.
And don't touch that remote, because there's more: the already-debuted "Chains of Love," a Robin Hood-style heist series tentatively titled "Break In!," something currently called "Real People TV," a PBS version of "The 1900 House," more "Popstars," more "Making the Band" ... the list seems as endless as cable reruns.
Can this still be called a trend, a phase of the airwaves? Or is it something more?
"I think it's now beyond a trend," says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It's now a form, just like soap operas, doctor shows, or legal shows. I doubt you, me, our children or our grandchildren will know a time without it."
A lucrative idea
For networks, the reality show's appeal is obvious. Every show is cheap -- no having to shell out millions in salary to keep cast members happy -- strike-proof (something to keep in mind with the possibility of writers' and actors' strikes), and, says Thompson, "it perfectly fits the artistic capabilities of the medium."
Reality shows are also incredibly profitable. ABC and its parent company, Disney, recently acknowledged that "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," a quiz show lumped into the reality genre because of its use of regular joes and janes, is the most lucrative program in television history. It's earned almost $1 billion in a little more than 18 months. The show also has spun off a CD-ROM game, "Millionaire" clothes, and an attraction at Walt Disney World.
"Survivor" hasn't exactly produced chump change, either. Thirty-second spots for the August finale of "Survivor I" were reportedly going for the blockbuster sum of $600,000 apiece. Stack that against the show's major costs: the $1 million prize and creator Mark Burnett's salary.
All this for an idea as old as motion pictures, and one that has always had a place in the television universe.
"Before the current crop there was 'Cops' and 'America's Most Wanted,' " observes Dwight E. Brooks, a professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Georgia. "Before that there was the video reality craze -- 'America's Funniest Home Videos.' (And) prior to that we had 'Candid Camera.' We've always had 'reality' TV, just in different forms."
Which is not to say that reality programming is merely an update of the classic documentary form. This new genre thrives on reality that's contrived, Thompson notes.
"The universe is all artifice, and you populate that universe with non-actors," he says. "So it's half fiction, half reality."
The shows' success is no surprise to cultural commentator Neal Gabler, who traces reality-mania to what he calls "a deep crisis in narrative."
"Reality programming not only provides suspense that conventional narratives have a difficult time matching; it seems to vanquish the threat of (writerly) manipulation altogether," he wrote in a March New York Times column.
A 'Real World' and 'Millionaire'
With the hindsight a TV season brings, it's amazing that the broadcast networks took so long to catch on.
Thompson dates reality programming's modern genesis to MTV's "The Real World," which debuted in 1992 and had the market entirely to itself for almost eight years.
Then came "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
"Millionaire" slid into ABC's schedule during the 1999 late-summer doldrums and (much to the network's surprise) rolled up huge ratings. It proved no fluke when it was brought back during the November "sweeps" period. Editions of the show ended up Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for the 1999-2000 season.
"Millionaire" wasn't a reality show in the "Survivor" sense, but it had many of the elements of the reality show -- real people, contrived situation (answer quiz questions to win $1 million), low costs. And the kicker was that it had originated in Europe.
"Executives looked across the Atlantic for anything, and they discovered rip-offs of 'The Real World,'" says Thompson. "It's kind of like rock 'n' roll -- it started here, crossed (the ocean), and came back here with the British Invasion."
Not a single show, he adds, has been a failure. Even the relatively low-rated shows have made money and brought in the desirable adults 18-49 demographic.
The shows stand out in a rather homogenous marketplace, Brooks says.
"With all the competition, programmers needed innovative, provocative shows -- something different to distinguish their product from all the others," he says.
Advertisers and audiences
American producers have toned down the European shows, which often feature R-rated material that American broadcasters deem inappropriate.
But, even watered-down for U.S. tastes, the shows have prompted cultural critics to wring their hands. For example, "Temptation Island," a test-their-devotion show that dangled the possibility of on-camera hanky-panky among four couples at a Caribbean resort, got skewered regularly on radio, print and higher-brow TV.
Despite the critics' concern, Brooks believes there's a place for a variety of realities on American TV.
"There will always be a place for risque content on American television," he says. "How far our commercial networks take it remains to be seen. I don't think it will ever reach the level of Europe. ... Advertisers want audiences, but they don't want to be associated with the type of controversy that sexual poor taste in programming will surely bring."
On the other hand, says Yvonne Tocquigny, president of Austin, Texas-based Tocquigny Advertising, advertisers are likely to worry more about cash than content.
"There will be advertisers who want any viewer," she says. "You can't really categorize viewers as undesirable as long as they are quantifiable."
Advertisers have made the most of the current reality craze. The retail giant Target, in particular, has a highly visible tie-in deal with "Survivor." Marketers could get even more involved in the future, along the lines of the U.S. soap operas owned by corporate titans such as Procter & Gamble, suggests Tocquigny.
No crash in sight
In the meantime, reality TV is the hottest thing going. According to an executive at a major production company, the frenzy is particularly furious right now, a mad market with networks commissioning shows from production companies and production companies selling shows to networks. One industry wag has called it the "NASDAQ reality bubble."
And like tech stocks, the market for reality TV could crash, but Thompson doesn't see it.
"It's (unpredictability) that makes these things work," he says. "We don't know what will happen." The fact that recent movies, such as "15 Minutes" and "Series 7," have exploited reality programming underscore show how vital it is, he adds.
"With technology creating more and more isolation between people, I believe you can expect to see an increasing appetite for programming that approximates real human responses," she says. "I see reality shows maturing into programming that appeals to different audiences," from teens to middle-aged professionals. The venerable sitcom won't die, she says, but it will have to compete.
So, if you haven't already, get used to these newcomers on the box. Some reality shows may provide incredible drama; others may fall below the line of bad taste. The genre will likely have a shakeout after the current glut, but it will be as much a part of your TV as John Wayne shooting at bad guys on late-night movies.
"We'll see reality in syndication, reality in daytime, reality news," says Brooks.
"It's just another innovative way to tell stories. That's what TV must do to survive, find new ways of telling basically the same stories: about conflict, love, and -- heaven forbid -- survival."
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