Earlier this month, my on-again, off-again affair with reality TV finally came to an end – for good. I confess, I was totally smitten by American Idol, The Amazing Race and Survivor, at least in their early days. Though I publicly pretended not to care, I secretly loved every silly episode, tuning in from the first frame right through to the scenes of the following week’s installment (God, help me). Later, I dabbled with the likes of The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire. But, not anymore.
The turning point for me came with the debut of Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People on U.S. network ABC. Struck by something akin to morbid fascination, I tuned in for the first five minutes of the show. The whole premise turned me off. Contestants are judged solely on the basis of their physical attributes by a panel of so-called experts. (Lorenzo Lamas? Oh, puh-leeze.) That was it. I turned the channel and I haven’t watched any form of reality show since.
I’ve heard similar tales from friends and colleagues, but for different shows. For some, the saturation point came with ABC’s The Bachelorette; for others it was the more recent Married by America on Fox. Regardless of the program, each person’s reaction was the same: their interest in the genre as a whole waned once they hit the wall with one show.
To me, that gets to the heart of the real problem with reality programming: There’s too much of it and it’s all too similar. In this issue, one doc-maker offers his peers the sage advice that the best way to make a mark in this industry is to pursue program ideas that are different from what everyone else is doing. It’s sound counsel for broadcasters, too, and Discovery, for one, appears to be listening.
The cablecaster recently announced plans to back a series of feature documentaries and also launched a new current affairs strand. I’ll admit, I was surprised when I heard the news – these initiatives seem more likely to come from a public channel than a commercial one. But, that very fact gives me hope. Discovery wouldn’t undertake anything that didn’t make sense from a business angle, so that could mean an industry sea-change is on the horizon.
I don’t expect the death-knell to sound for reality TV anytime soon, if ever. But, viewers need some relief from the current onslaught. Smart broadcasters will offer it to them.