Fox Offers Haven for Reality TV Fans
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Love them or hate them, reality shows are now reality. Today a new cable channel launches, and it features nothing but those shows 24-7. From member station KQED, Alex Cohen reports on where the reality-show genre is headed.
ALEX COHEN reporting:
Reality TV isn't really such a new concept. Real people have been on TV for decades--on game shows, talk shows, and programs like "Candid Camera" and "Cops." So how did reality TV recently become such a phenomenon?
It may have begun in the late 1980s, when a writers strike in Hollywood forced networks to air more unscripted shows than usual. And then in the early '90s, a new type of reality TV show was born.
(Soundbite of "The Real World")
Unidentified Man #1: This is the true story.
Unidentified Man #2: True story.
Unidentified Woman #1: Of seven strangers.
Unidentified Woman #2: Picked to live in a loft.
Unidentified Man #3: And have their lives taped.
COHEN: In 1991, MTV launched a program called "The Real World." It had no script, it featured no professional actors, but unlike other unscripted shows, "The Real World" featured the same people week after week. Viewers tuned in to watch the drama that arose out of what some would consider mundane situations.
(Soundbite of "The Real World")
Unidentified Man #4: They're absolute pigs. My roommates are pigs.
OK, if you make something and you eat, just put the dish in the dishwasher. Put the pot in the dishwasher.
COHEN: "The Real World" was a huge success. More unscripted shows began to pop up, and then in the year 2000 came one of the most popular reality shows ever.
(Soundbite of "Survivor")
Unidentified Man #5: This is "Survivor."
COHEN: In recent years, the airways have abounded with unscripted shows for just about every niche audience, from the family-friendly "Supernanny" to the tawdry "Temptation Island," and, of course, there's an abundance of makeover shows.
(Soundbite of "Extreme Makeover")
Unidentified Man #6: All right, Emily, you want the good news first or the bad news first?
EMILY: The bad.
Unidentified Man #6: The bad news is, we got to do something about this hair color. The good news is...
COHEN: On a hillside mansion in Hollywood, a small crew films an episode of ABC's "Extreme Makeover." Mary Clayton is one of the show's producers. She says reality TV is so popular because of the connections viewers have with the emotions of everyday people who star in such shows.
Ms. MARY CLAYTON (Producer, "Extreme Makeover"): The viewers like to imagine themselves in that place. Instead of it being a far-off person who's an actor playing a part, this is a real person that gets this extraordinary opportunity.
COHEN: The success of the unscripted genre may also have to do with who's watching it, says Bill Carter, who writes about television for The New York Times. Carter says the younger generation of TV watchers respond much more to reality shows than they do to sitcoms. In part, he thinks that's because of how these viewers were raised.
Mr. BILL CARTER (The New York Times): They're completely comfortable, that entire generation, with being on television. Every sort of big event of their lives was videotaped. So they always see themselves and they're friends and everybody they know--they've seen them on TV. And they really respond to that.
COHEN: Of course, not all reality TV shows are successful. The key to good TV, Carter says, scripted or unscripted, hinges on good ideas--which are increasingly hard to come by. Much like Northern California's dot-com boom a decade ago, reality TV has recently created a kind of gold-rush effect in Southern California. Entrepreneurs have flooded Hollywood with hopes of cashing in big with an idea for a new reality show. But few of those pitches are worthwhile. At a conference on reality TV held in Beverly Hills, Craig Pletsis, a senior vice president at NBC, gave a few examples.
Mr. CRAIG PLETSIS (Senior Vice President, NBC): Here is one that I had: "Architecture of Dictators." We'd go back and analyze Hitler's architecture--really weird.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PLETSIS: "Michael Jackson House." Get people who live in a house who all look like Michael Jackson, and one by one they're eliminated.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COHEN: It may come as no surprise that TV execs are now turning to people who have largely been shut out of the reality trend: writers. Writers are playing a pivotal role in a new type of show that's part scripted, part reality, known as the hybrid. One of the first hybrid shows was called "Joe Schmo."
(Soundbite of "Joe Schmo")
Unidentified Man #7: What would you do if your entire world turned out to be fake? If an army of writers, producers, and actors spent over a year creating TV's most elaborate experiment around you?
COHEN: "Joe Schmo" was a big success, but its sequel, "Joe Schmo 2, didn't fare nearly as well as the first. That comes as little surprise to New York Times TV writer Bill Carter. He says with the exception of a few hit shows like "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," viewers seldom tune in to reality sequels. And, Carter adds, viewers aren't likely to watch the same unscripted series again once they've seen a show's twists and turns, which is why networks don't run reality repeats.
Mr. CARTER: Because it doesn't repeat well, it doesn't really syndicate well. So it doesn't have a lot of long-term asset value. And they want assets. They want to create long-term assets. And they'd much rather have another edition of "Law & Order," let's say, than have another reality show that they can't syndicate and make, you know, millions down the road.
COHEN: But one network begs to differ. Today, the Fox network will launch a new cable channel, the Fox Reality Channel. General manager David Lyle says the market for an all-reality channel is ripe.
Mr. DAVID LYLE (General Manager, Fox): People who like reality love reality. It's fun.
COHEN: The network will replay episodes of unscripted shows like "Joe Millionaire," "The Swan," and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance." Lyle believes viewers will tune in, even to reality shows they've already seen, because the network will offer audiences much more, including footage that didn't originally make it to air and interviews with and commentary from the original participants of these shows.
Mr. LYLE: You'll watch it again because it's a bit like watching an old, say, Super Bowl match, but this time you've got the players commenting, you've got the coaches telling you what happened; you've got footage from a different angle to show when someone really fumbled the ball.
COHEN: The Fox Reality Channel debuts in 18.5 million homes today. That's one of the largest launches ever on cable television.
So what effect does all this unscripted programming have on those who watch it? Martin Kaplan is associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and specializes in the relationship between media and culture. Kaplan says that some reality shows depict a good side of humanity--our ability to cope with the unexpected.
Mr. MARTIN KAPLAN (Associate Dean, USC Annenberg School for Communication): And doing it in a way which makes you feel good about humanity rather than thinking that we're only a couple generations from the reptiles.
COHEN: But, Kaplan says, those kinds of shows are few and far between. He says many reality TV programs take advantage of people's desires to be on TV by making them do outrageous things such as having plastic surgery or eating bugs or even proposing marriage to someone they barely know.
Mr. KAPLAN: We love to watch people humiliate themselves and be subjected to sadistic situations. We ourselves don't feel that it's a shameful activity because, after all, if it were really lurid or inappropriate, surely they wouldn't allow it to be on television.
COHEN: Kaplan says what reality TV has done for our culture is made that desire to watch a publicly accepted activity. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.