From the May/June issue: Reality’s decade in the sun

As realscreen prepares a series of features looking at the new reality offerings making their way to TV this summer,'s Andy Dehnart takes a look at how summer TV grew to embrace reality programming.
June 14, 2010

A decade ago, CBS broadcast the first episode of Survivor. The May 31 anniversary coincided with Memorial Day, which is also the traditional start of summer. Thinking about the current state of summer TV is a good reminder of just how much has changed in a decade.

Survivor wasn’t the first reality show to debut on a broadcast network. That distinction goes to ABC’s Making the Band, which debuted in March and followed the creation of O-Town, a now-defunct boy band. You can also trace the genre’s roots backwards to the special Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and further to Cops, and of course, MTV’s Real World and PBS’ An American Family.

But really, Survivor changed the summer game, and as a result of its massive success, networks started programming their way from May to September, usually with unscripted TV. No longer was summer the home of endless reruns while viewers went off on vacation.

Today, reality isn’t the only game in the summer. Sure, we have summer staples like Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, CBS’ Big Brother, NBC’s America’s Got Talent, and ABC’s Wipeout.

But compared to the parade of reality series of summers past, reality is no longer the king of the season. USA Today recently reported that broadcast networks are facing ever-increasing competition from cable’s slate of quality scripted TV that ‘is forcing their hand.’ Thus, broadcast networks are back to debuting – and investing in – more scripted series.

For a long time, broadcast networks treated the easy success of reality in the summer so casually that a lot of weak, derivative and unimaginative series were thrown into the summer schedule only to burn up and die. It’s not exactly surprising that the strategy didn’t stick and those shows were quickly canceled.

Over on cable, unscripted TV is unquestionably dominant, and producers are creating some innovative series. It’s working so well that entire networks are focusing on narrative, character-driven, unscripted TV.

Animal Planet’s recent ‘Surprisingly Human’ rebranding emphasizes how successful it’s been with series that focus on people who interact with the animal world. And we’ve seen great new unscripted TV, from A&E’s Hoarders to Planet Green’s The Fabulous Beekman Boys.

But how many paranormal shows are there? And quasi-celebrity dating shows? Regardless of the success some of those shows have had, it’s more than a little reminiscent of what happened on broadcast TV. How many Jersey Shore clones are about to pop up?

In the late 1990s, scripted TV was in decline on broadcast TV. Clones of Friends substituted for innovative new series. When reality took off, networks scrambled. Now, one of the biggest hits of the last 10 years, at least in terms of buzz, has been ABC’s Lost, which was in part conceived as a response to Survivor. But the net effect over 10 years has been that unscripted TV is starting to get as complacent as scripted TV once was.

Now that summer reality has turned 10, it’s worth noting that reality doesn’t own cable, just as it didn’t own summer TV. Reality TV forced scripted TV to get better. Now, and for the next 10 years, it’s time for the reverse to happen.

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

For more from realscreen‘s May/June issue, click here.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.