Recession reality

Reality TV can reflect hard times, and entertain while doing it.
January 1, 2009

Before the recession really became apparent, broadcast and cable networks alike were already looking to save money and conserve resources, and that meant ordering more unscripted programming.

Welcome back, American Gladiators. Hello, Wipeout. But those and other series weren’t programs born of an economic crisis and broadcast in the middle of one, which presents problems that both new and returning shows are faced with.

Should that programming reflect the economy that made it possible? Should unscripted TV mirror the problems faced in viewers’ lives? Or should it provide a complete escape and a fantasy version of reality?

Would viewers want to watch cash-strapped companies donate their time to help a family that may not be able to afford the luxurious new house they’re being given on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? If an Ice Road Trucker gets laid off, should cameras follow him home?

These are tough questions, and the answers depend upon a number of factors, such as the series’ network, audience and target demographics, and its purpose. However, as unscripted TV walks the line between raw reality and the fantastic more than any other type of show, there is a way to find a balance.

On one level, facing economic (or other) challenges directly gives viewers people and situations they can identify with. On the other hand, since they’re living in that kind of circumstance, a reflection of their reality is probably not what they want in their entertainment.

HGTV recently announced that it ‘will premiere four new series that focus on ways to make the most out of the real estate market during the sluggish economy.’ Those new shows debut in early 2009, so although they haven’t been broadcast yet, that approach sounds like the best possible one: acknowledge what’s happening, but give viewers something more, and a way to deal with, overcome, or even forget about that part of characters’ lives.

That’s the sort of balance that works, and has worked for years. PBS and WNET’s An American Family (1973), a seminal reality series, may be known for its more aggressively dramatic moments. But the series drew people in back in the early 1970s because of the smaller, quieter moments, too.

Some 20 years later, Pedro Zamora’s serious battle with AIDS on MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco wasn’t the only part of his life we saw. The producers’ decision to focus on his relationships with his roommates, his work and other parts of his life didn’t diminish his illness; it gave viewers something else to watch and connect with beyond that facet.

The health problems faced by contestants on NBC’s The Biggest Loser are balanced by their uplifting path to better fitness, never mind the show’s challenges, game play and non-stop product placement.

On some shows, it wouldn’t make sense to do more than offer references to economic woes that would contextualize a person’s experiences, like with Survivor or Top Chef contestants. With others, that may be the whole narrative thrust, from destitute families being assisted by a Secret Millionaire to the recession’s impact on people who do Dirty Jobs.

Ultimately, unless you’re the producers of The Hills, the goal should be to present an accurate version of reality, however contrived the scenario or edited the results may be. And while homes, jobs or fortunes may be lost, there is life outside of that.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred ( and writes TV criticism for

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.