What’s next for reality programming?

Expect the unexpected is the prediction for the future of reality shows, as producers continue to borrow from various genres in the effort to create new forms.
May 17, 2001

Despite early predictions that reality programming would be no more than a flash in the pan, the genre has firmly established itself in markets around the globe. In the U.S., reality shows have been given pride of place on the recently announced fall schedules for each of the major networks. Viewers have only to wait out the summer for a third edition of Survivor (CBS) and a second edition of The Mole (ABC), not to mention such new offerings as Fear Factor (NBC). And in France, Loft Story has prompted heated debates over its steamy content and protests to ‘liberate’ the lofters, but is still pulling in huge numbers (a reported 10 million viewers the night the first contestant was eliminated).

However, while the audience’s appetite for voyeuristic, psycho-social, factual entertainment – preferably in the form of gameshow – has not yet been sated, the genre will soon have to evolve to keep viewers’ attention. The question is how. Drawing on the progression to date, further pinching from other areas seems inevitable.

Says Séan Kirkegaard, team leader of London’s Ignition, Pearson Television Worldwide Production’s format engine, ‘It’s somewhat like genetic modification. If you take the exciting bits from different areas of television, different genres, and splice them together, either you get Frankenstein’s monster or you get a hit – or maybe the hit is Frankenstein’s monster.’

Though he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say what’s next for reality, Kirkegaard did reveal that he thinks MTV’s Fear (of which the second season premieres this summer) is an example of a show moving in the right direction. ‘It’s basically Scooby-doo as a reality gameshow. They take a bunch of cool-looking kids and scare the bejeebers out of them. I think it’s interesting because it takes elements from horror and applies them to real people, but in a way that I think remains tasteful. No one for a moment feels like there might be serious physical consequences.’

At Action Time (purveyor of The Mole), head of factual Peter Davey agrees that the glut of copycat reality programs necessitates a push forward. ‘We were in discussion with Discovery U.S. about one that is much more factually based and centered on a single event. And, there’s one in America that I read about where you put real people in a town in a murder-solving scenario. We have a couple that are along those lines.’

To encourage diversity and a proliferation of ideas, Davey’s unit also produces more traditional doc fare, such as Heroes, a 7 x 30-minute series about the experiences of soldiers who have won the Victoria Cross, and My Brilliant Idea, a 5 x 30-minute series about inventors. Says Davey, ‘To a certain extent the audience will see a program like Heroes and, when the Action Time logo pops out at the end, go, ‘God, I didn’t realize they did that sort of stuff.’ But The Mole was a big cross-over. I think a lot of people were surprised that Action Time did that.’

Expect the unexpected, in other words. Notes Kirkegaard, ‘If you have a culture and you have enough germs, they’ll keep breeding. What is produced comes down to the creative skills of the people driving that phenomena.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.