What’s Right with Reality TV

About a decade ago, many network executives predicted that fans would quickly lose their appetite for reality programming. Little did they know, the reality genre would be thriving, and showing no signs of it slowing down. During the early 1990s, reality TV reemerged as something refreshing and exciting. Ten years later, it began trending, and by 2010, it had become embedded in American culture (Poniewozik, 2010). However, many pinpoint the 2007-2008 television season as reality TV’s rise to the top. That year, the non-fiction writers and actors went on strike, forcing networks to seek out ways to keep viewers’ attention. Either way, reality TV has redefined what television entertainment means. Gone are the days of viewers strictly relying on scripted programming for primetime entertainment.

The endless stream of candidates makes it much easier and cheaper to find reality show quality talent. In his article, What’s Right with Reality TV, James Poniewozik (2010) wrote, “The New York Times estimates that at any given time, there are 1,000 people on air as reality TV stars” (p. 4). While that may not be a huge number, it shows that reality TV is trending upward. Within the next few years, reality TV will completely dominate network television primarily due to the high television ratings, the reality genre’s evolution, and the networks choosing to fund cheaper reality shows. Showcasing the positive and negative aspects of ordinary people’s lives has helped boost reality TV’s ratings. Viewers living in the reality and social media era are accustomed to excitement and translucence, not privacy (Mirrless, 2016). Instead of spending quality time dissecting scripted plots, viewers are tuning in to watch the thrilling unpredictability of reality TV. For the last 10-15 years, the popularity of reality TV has exploded and matured at a remarkable pace. Mirrlees writes, “Since the turn of the millennium, the North American reality-TV production sector has grown immensely, and it is a boon to TV networks as they compete for viewer attention, ratings and ad revenue in a period of TV industry transformation” (Kraidy & Sender, Murray & Ouellette, as cited in Mirrlees, 2016 p. 1).

Ratings are used as a tool that measures the success of a program. In the past, reality producers have collected the rating data and used it to develop new shows. During the 2010-2011 TV season, reality TV accounted for more than half of the primetime ratings (Nielsen, as cited in Mirrlees, 2016). The research provided by Nielsen confirms the power shift from scripted to unscripted programming. Networks typically ride the ratings wave and launch spin-offs centered around some of the most well-known reality stars. These bonus shows are often more diverse and place reality stars in an entirely different sub-genre. For example, one reality personality went from a competition-driven show to a spin-off that featured his life as a single father. The assortment of successful shows is what propels reality TV to have such a strong value within the television market (Brunsdon et al, as cited in Hill, 2005). The reality genre continues to grow and has birthed numerous sub-genres. These categories keep fans interested and include the following: competition, love, law and order, cooking, health and fitness, travel, hidden camera, and home improvement. Networks cast a wide net in hopes of capturing viewers from all walks of life. Fans appreciate and benefit from having a plethora of reality programming options.

Audiences lock in and become obsessed with the lives of normal people who are put in extraordinary situations. Between new weekly episodes and daily reruns, cable television has been flooded with reality shows. In its primary sense, reality TV’s thumbprint is all over network television. Reality shows often propel cast members to opportunities outside of reality TV. Networks are eradicating daytime soap operas in favor of talk shows that feature former reality stars. Talk shows are starting to take aspects from reality television and incorporate them into their programming. Sharon Osbourne, the wife of the famous Ozzy Osbourne, starred in a reality show called The Osbournes. For the last few years, she has been a co-host on the Emmy Award-winning talk show The Talk. Tamar Braxton, star of the reality show Braxton Family Values, was once a co-host on the talk show The Real. Reality TV has given regular people a shot at fame while keeping budgets low and advertising revenue high. Networks often choose reality programming because the production cost for the average reality show is typically cheaper than traditional scripted shows. Reality shows do not require seasoned writers or actors, so producers can be frugal with that part of the budget. Without overspending, producers strive to put together a cast that audiences respond to and support.

Creating shows that viewers relate to gives smaller networks like Do It Yourself (DIY) an opportunity to compete with the likes of Home and Garden Television (HGTV). According to Mirrlees, “On average, an hour long reality TV show costs a studio between $350,000 and $500,000 to make, while one episode of a fictional TV show costs anywhere from $1 to $2.5 million” (Adalian, Eidelson, Gornstein as cited in Mirrless, 2016, p. 2). It is very common for a scripted TV show to go over budget. The scripted TV series The Get Down budget reached $120 million and rivaled that of a major motion picture. In an effort to save money, the network was forced to cancel the show and rethink its financial strategy. Production companies use many methods to meet budget demands. They often cancel scripted programs and replace them with cost-efficient reality shows. Another way they cut costs is by exploiting their non-unionized labor force (Mirrless, 2016). Potential cast members are presented with ironclad contracts that hold them accountable for all injuries that may happen during filming. Additionally, each year trained actors can’t find work and choose to take unpaid unscripted reality jobs (Peterson, as cited in Mirrlees, 2016).

Producers welcome these actors, because free labor saves the production company thousands of dollars. Some professionals recognize that in this business, opportunities don’t always come with a paycheck attached. They bank on the publicity creating future employment opportunities and enhancing their portfolio. Essentially, reality shows are cheap to produce and have excellent ratings, which equal a profitable revenue stream for networks. In conclusion, the battle between scripted and unscripted programming will be non-existent in a few years. Reality programming has cemented its place atop the primetime television mountain. More and more fans are becoming obsessed with following the lives of regular people who gained fame through reality TV. The genre’s vast assortment of shows is continuously evolving and gives demanding viewers plenty of options. Networks will continue to seek out ways to cut budgets and maximize their profits. The popularity of reality TV has networks abandoning the traditional scripted television programs in favor of the cheaper reality shows.