It is approaching the end of the decade, and I find myself thinking back to the year 2000, when Y2K was an apocalyptic concept, carpenter jeans were still okay and the term “reality” made me think of “what I needed to face when I was a grown up.”
The year 2000 marked the advent of the reality television craze, the time when the “unscripted drama” was still a novelty, before it consumed the majority of television programming. People thought of reality programming as a fad; cheap, quick programming that would fade away as suddenly as it appeared. Survivor was in its first year in the United States and The Real World began to erode what the “M” stood for in MTV. Game shows like Who Wants to be A Millionaire and The Weakest Link were just beginning to hit mainstream popularity and “Is that your final answer?” and “You are the weakest link” were still popular catch phrases. Phrases such as “You’re fired,” “That’s hot” and “Fist pump” were still unfathomable and reality-whores Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag were still just teenagers with no claim to fame (not like they have any now), the Osbournes were the only “celebrity” reality TV show and no one even knew who the Kardashians were (aside from certain Hollywood circles with their knowledge of esteemed litigator Robert Kardashian).
Oh, how the times have changed! A decade later, and you can’t surf the 500 channel universe without wiping out on some terrible, contrived road-kill reality TV show that serves no apparent purpose except to satisfy our guilty viewing pleasures. Don’t get me wrong, I do it too. I LOVE terrible reality television. But isn’t it comical that we find The Bachelor and The Bachelorette almost too tame and boring to watch because no one is constantly bickering and no one is a complete (almost unwatchable) mess.
Where did we go wrong with reality dating shows? What happened to hoping for a successful Trista and Ryan romance? Should we just blame it all on Flavor Flav and Bret Michaels for changing dating shows completely? Blind Date? Elim-a-date? Taildaters? The Littlest Groom? Yuck. I think there are still some people out there who believe they can go on these dating shows and find “true love,” but the odds of finding a soulmate on a reality dating show seem to be equivalent to one of Bret Michael’s harem keeping her shirt on for an entire episode… in other words: slim to none.
When The Real World began, it was a pioneering piece of television programming. A new experience in which neither the viewers nor The Real World “roommates” knew what to expect. Now you watch the first episode of any season and everyone knows the specific role that each “cast member” should play: there is the “outspoken-crazy” roommate, the “alternative-lifestyle” roommate, the “close minded-conservative” roommate and so on. In today’s reality TV landscape, people tend to know the role they are supposed to play. In addition there is the whole genre of “semi-scripted” reality shows. Despite the fact that that is an obvious oxymoron, shows such as The Hills, The City or any E! reality show tend to be tremendous hits.
If you watch enough reality shows, like I do, you tend to notice the manipulative editing that makes them interesting and adds tension even when there really isn’t any, or how contrived they can be to get viewers, ratings and advertising sponsors. For example, was it pure coincidence that Justin Bobby showed up at the studio to talk with Audrina Patridge on The Hills when R&B singer Brandy was recording her new single (that was released on iTunes the very next day)? Or the Keeping Up With the Kardashians wedding special that pulled in 3.2 million viewers when the wedding wasn’t even a legally binding ceremony? Reality, by its very nature, is not always spontaneous, funny, touching or engaging. Most current reality shows are scripted so that situations are manufactured to create drama for the camera, and – even with this knowledge –people tune in week after week.
Why We Watch
How realistic is reality television these days? And why do we love to watch it season after season? Ironically, I think the greatest asset of “reality television” is that it allows us to escape reality. After a long day, watching “mindless” television is easy entertainment. My generation of television viewers are multitaskers, and it is easy to comprehend the Jersey Shore while simultaneously painting my nails, texting my friends and Facebooking. Also, these programs make us feel good about ourselves; knowing that we are sane and definitely not like that girl (or at least we aren’t until the cameras start to roll and a producer is barking orders at us!).
So Now What?
They are cheap, easy and profitable, so it is just a simple (ahem) reality that these reality shows are going to continue to be television cannon fodder for the foreseeable future. There is always someone seeking their 15 minutes of fame, willing to sign their life away and not ask a dime for it. So let’s look at this with a glass half full of eggnog (it is holiday season after all). “What are they going to come out with next?” “Who will be the next Speidi?” and “Will Bret Michaels ever find his Rock of Love?” Who cares! As long as we get to watch it. Maybe in 2019 I can revisit this post and see how things have changed, but for now, reality television is a staple of our fast-food television diet and the contrived, scripted and road-kill programming that we all love to watch (albeit with clenched teeth and partially covered eyes) will continue to air, so, just like they did in the ‘60s, let’s tune in, tune on and drop out.
Cara Zizzo is Account Coordinator for BRAINtrust Marketing
She is currently rooting for a Season Four of Temptation Island. Sigh.
Follow her on Twitter @CaraZizzo.