This week, the Funkhouser crew is tackling the big pop-culture questions that need to be answered. Today, Abby and Josh pontificate about the state of reality TV.
Abby: I may be biased, as working in reality television has made up most of my career so far, but I honestly believe it to be thriving and actually getting quite better in recent years. Sure, you have some terrible and cringe-worthy shows, but as of last year, reality TV got its own category at the Emmy Awards, so I’d say that sets a bar for other shows to strive toward. Last year the reality nominees were divided into competition, unstructured and structured categories. Structured included shows like “Antiques Roadshow”, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”, “Mythbusters” and “Shark Tank.” Unstructured programs list included “Deadliest Catch”, “Flipping Out”, “Million Dollar Listing New York”, and “Wahlburgers.” Clearly, there is a difference between these shows and shows like “Bad Girls Club,” but the future looks bright for the genre as a whole, and from the experience of working on producing teams of some reality shows, yes some scenes are “produced” but they are motivated by real interactions and real problems often edited or directed for clarity and- let’s face it- dramatic, “teaseable” moments.
Josh: For all the reasons you’ve listed, plus a few more (for example, last week’s cable TV ratings for the 18-49 year-old demographic included eight reality shows among the top 25 most watched programs), it’s hard to argue that reality TV is declining in a meaningful sense. Plus, it’s cheaper to produce than scripted shows, so even middling reality TV is a financial win for networks and is therefore unlikely to get the boot from our listings any time soon. That said, there are a couple of trends I’d like to talk about that probably aren’t great for reality TV, and those might be my only hope for mounting a convincing argument, so here goes.
My first argument is my snobbiest, so I’ll keep it brief. Basically, as I look back over the shows you’ve listed above, I don’t see much that the broad spectrum of reality TV has to offer a person looking to be engaged at a level beyond pure escapism or distraction. Now, I’ll stop here to make clear that I don’t feel like every act has to be filled to the brim with intellectual rigor, and I don’t think people should feel guilty for liking what they like, but reality TV seems to be a pretty shallow pool to go swimming in. So it’s hard for me to imagine that, however popular it may be, reality TV is really going to transcend the boundaries that feel like they’re more or less a foundational part of its whole setup. Is that elitist and out of touch? Probably, but having tons of viewers and being a financial boon for TV executives isn’t the same thing as being good. Declining? No, not in the ways most people are likely to measure it. But it’s stuck in the rut that it’s been digging for itself for years, and no amount of washed-up celebrities competing for the approval of a man in an egregious hairpiece is going to change that.
Abby: You are spot on- for financial reasons, reality TV will never go away. While the “reality” part of reality TV seems to be that it would attract views because it is relatable and more “real,” but actually programing now skews such extreme lifestyles. You have the pageant kids, Kardashians, Duck Dynasty, Jersey Shore, and the Housewives franchise all leading the most recognized reality shows. Most people can’t relate to those lifestyles but the glimpses the shows give into those ways of life, make it appealing to obviously millions of people weekly. I do think the addition of “docu-series” to the reality lineup is good. They are more of what I like in a reality show, giving an educational but still dramatic story in a real life context. Netflix is producing their own docu-series “Chef’s Table” and branching into their own version of “nonfiction storytelling” as they call it. After the 20/20 Bruce Jenner and Diane Sawyer interview, I can bet the E! docu-series on his transition will up the bar on their programming knowing that they will get more viewers than ever. While reality shows will never rival scripted shows for me personally, I do like working on them. I like working with real people and finding the stories in their life that are shareable and interesting and makes me feel like everyone has an interesting story that could be shared.
Josh: I’m with you on the extreme lifestyles with which reality TV seems obsessed. People are also fascinated with grisly car accidents, and unfortunately, I think there’s an uncomfortable amount of overlap between what draws people to each. Hearing the (frankly embarrassing and unfair) amount of holier-than-thou vitriol spat towards the Honey Boo-Boo clan makes me think that a big part of the popularity of shows that focus on the cheaply mocked (I’d throw the Kardashians in there as another example) is that it allows people to glimpse lifestyles and people that make them feel better about themselves. Now, not all reality TV is built this way, and I admit that there are more than a few legitimately interesting options out there, I just wish that the stuff that got most people talking wasn’t of the let’s-gather-around-the-TV-and-watch-a-dumpster-fire variety.
As for scripted shows, I’m with you. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel like the so-called “Golden Age” of TV is one of the main reasons reality TV feels like it’s declining. Even at its best, it just can’t hold a candle to much of the great scripted stuff out there. When Orange is the New Black and Veep and Game of Thrones and Mad Men and The Americans (and on and on and on) populate the TV landscape, it’s hard to feel like another cooking competition show has much to offer in the way of substance. Since I’m predisposed to love great scripted TV, other programming (mostly reality TV) feels stale by comparison.
Abby: Very true, there is definitely a “can’t look away” aspect to watching these shows, especially when you think their lifestyle is really funny or even disgusting. The Golden Age of TV does not include the reality genre – you are right! But I will say the some of the most successful shows are these reality shows that have been on for 10+ seasons. It is also amazing that (from my knowledge) the people who work on these shows are paid so much less than scripted workers. Reason for that is the Union and scripted primarily hires out of that and takes care of them while reality TV typically never hires Union workers. So for that as well, networks and talent make all the money in non-scripted and while you can produce a show that airs 1 million times and continues to make money, you don’t see it as a producer. Definitely a negative aspect for me, but from a network viewpoint, that is why I think they’re here to stay for the long haul. Andy Warhol once said, “Everyone in the future will have their 15 minutes of fame.” He must have been talking about this time, where eventually we will all know someone who was on a reality show. It’s not pretty, but it is attention grabbing and that sucks people in and holds tight. I watch shows that I am embarrassed to admit. There is truly something for everyone. I am just thankful that scripted TV is so good right now that the couple of reality shows I do watch I don’t place highly on my DVR list – more of I catch them when I catch them since they are replayed way more often than any current scripted shows – another factor in why they are so widely watched.
Josh: Here I am at my final response and we haven’t once called each other insulting names or snidely dismissed the other’s point of view. All we’ve managed to do is courteously and thoughtfully examine a subject while trying to come to a clearer understanding of how we, and others, might feel. I think we’re doing this wrong.
Seriously though, no matter how I try to spin it, I can’t claim reality TV is dying (even though I’d be perfectly content if a large portion of it wandered off into the woods and was never heard from again). That said, I’ll take on one final point you made that I think bears some scrutiny. You brought up the staying power of some of reality TV’s most well-known shows. Survivor, American Idol, Deadliest Catch, and The Bachelor/ette have been around for what feels like forever, but hasn’t their cultural cachÃ© diminished significantly? I would imagine that they have a devoted following who’ll watch no matter what, but they were once broad-reaching touchstones that viewers of all stripes might have been drawn to. I’m admittedly a casual observer of most reality TV, but I couldn’t name a single winner of Idol or The Voice since the days of Ruben Studdard. These shows don’t seem to permeate or dominate pop culture any more. Instead, they’ve taken up niche residences and are content to play themselves out, occasionally spicing things up with some new wrinkle (How far away from Survivor: Race Wars are we really?) designed to keep their faithful viewers intrigued. It isn’t death, exactly, but it’s closer to irrelevance than most TV producers are probably comfortable living.
Am I pleased by this trend? Maybe a little. But like I said before, I don’t think people should apologize for liking what they like, and though it’s easy to claim that reality TV is a scourge that’s dumbing down the population, I actually think what gets put on TV and into movie theaters and at the top of the pop charts is a reflection of what we value. So folks can bash the Kardashians all they like, but we’ve given them their fame, and we keep giving it to them, millions of us. The answer is simple: if you don’t like reality TV and wish it were dying, then STOP WATCHING IT. Otherwise, stop telling me that Honey Boo-Boo is ruining the world.