A Kinder, Gentler Wave Of Reality Television Is Out To Spark Joy It's a genre historically known for screaming matches and backstabbing competition. But lately, the shows at its forefront — say, Queer Eye or Marie Kondo — feature a lot more generosity of spirit.

A Kinder, Gentler Wave Of Reality TV Tries A Little Tenderness, For A Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/744881124/745731923" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When you think of reality television, drama like this probably comes to mind...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I came here to be No. 1.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Coming up next, here on NBC...

KELLY: ...Screaming matches, hot tub hookups, contestants there to win, not to make friends. But recently, reality has taken a kinder, gentler turn. Take the new "Queer Eye" on Netflix, which started its fourth season with a public school teacher getting a makeover.


JONATHAN VAN NESS: And I really want to celebrate you. And I also want to celebrate that I'm going to be cutting your hair.

KELLY: NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on reality's new nice.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A lot of Netflix reality shows tend to be awfully sweet.


MARY BERRY: That's quite something. That is absolutely delicious.

ULABY: "The Great British Baking Show" was just one of many warm-hearted food programs on Netflix including "Sugar Rush," "Street Food" and "Nailed It," where contestants giggle over epic failures in decorating cakes. On the Netflix dating show "Dating Around," you'll see hardly any jerks. And on "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo," the Japanese organizing guru gently guides Americans into discarding stuff that doesn't spark joy.


MARIE KONDO: Does this spark joy for you?

BRANDON RIEGG: We say spark joy now for everything.

ULABY: Brandon Riegg is the Netflix vice president in charge of unscripted series. He says the streaming site has more than a hundred reality shows, including some in the works, and many of them are based on people being kind to each other.

RIEGG: In the beginning, it wasn't an intentional strategy. When we decided to get into original unscripted programming, it really was a blank slate.

ULABY: So why not, he said, try something different? Namely - being nice.


JACQUES TORRES: You're so nice.

NICOLE BYER: Actually, both of you are so nice.

ULABY: Those are the hosts of "Nailed It." That show and "Queer Eye" were both so successful, Netflix decided to make positive reality programming central to its brand. Since Netflix does not release audience numbers, we don't exactly know what successful means. But Riegg says the trend of sweet-natured reality television has spread across the industry.

RIEGG: Everybody's noticing. Viewers are more drawn to that. There is an appetite for that.

ULABY: NBC may have helped start this trend years ago with "The Biggest Loser," along with ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which Riegg helped develop. Andy Dehnart runs the website Reality Blurred.

ANDY DEHNART: As a critic, as a fan of reality TV, I love it. It makes it a lot easier to watch, to write about and to just enjoy.

ULABY: Plus, Dehnart says, there's shows families can watch together. Of course there are still mean-spirited reality shows out there, including ones on Netflix. But generally, we may be seeking a break from people being rotten to each other, says Tara Long, who runs a number of reality shows including "Growing Up Hip Hop" and "Siesta Key."

TARA LONG: We actually have production meetings when we start and say we don't want fighting.

ULABY: A profound shift, Long says, from when reality relied on people flipping tables for drama. I asked Long if people like her who make reality television might be trying to change the cultural conversation after 20 years of toxic reality shows.

LONG: A hundred percent. I think we want to create this content and tell these stories to try to course-correct for some of the type of shows that have been done in the past.

ULABY: At a moment when the tone of public discourse feels so lowered, Long says, maybe it's time for reality television - yes, reality television - to lead a push toward civility and respect.


BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Be nice.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Be nice. Be nice.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.