Taking a short break from my series on humor for a quick rant.
Reality shows: love ’em or hate ’em?
I never saw Big Brother. The first reality show I remember is Survivor. The previews built up the show like these people were stranded on a desert island and had to fend for themselves. Except they didn’t.
Other than crowd pleasers like eating bugs and rats, there was very little demonstration of actual survival skills, such as building shelter and finding food. Instead, survivors spent their time performing contrived stunts for “immunity” and sitting around on the beach backstabbing each other. Which turned out to be the only really important skill, in fact.
The next season’s survivors learned from this. They started backstabbing right away. They were so good, in fact, they must have practiced backstabbing in the off season.
Then there was American Idol, which perfected The Reality Show Formula for all the imitators to follow:
(1) you need three judges: one nice, one neutral, one jerk.
(2) you start with The Freakshow. Each episode starts by showing you the line of hopefuls that stretches around the block. Focus on the ones with weird clothes and freaky piercings. Being a talent show, you would think they would only want talent. Nope. The horrible singers get equal time with the great ones. Remember William Hung? He made a career out of being gleefully tone deaf, launched by the show that searches for America’s best singers.
On The Freakshow, the judges have their roles: the jerk-judge cuts them down, the neutral-judge offers advice, and the nice-judge smiles a lot. Guess which judge everyone remembers.
(3) you move on to the actual competition. It’s part soap opera, part Gong Show. Each contestant tells a weepy story of how winning this competition will validate their life. Then they sing. The judges get to buzz them when the show starts to drag, and make up words like “pitchy”. The jerk-judge pulls out his most creative insults at this time. Then the cameraman zooms in to the contestants’ faces hoping they will cry.
(4) you introduce viewer voting. Ballot stuffing is inevitable and encouraged, since it makes more money for their sponsor AT&T. The judges can still insult the contestants, to influence viewer voting and make sure the correct demographic makes it through to the final.
(5) the last part of the formula is the results show. The contestants stand on a stage in front of millions of people and look anxious and uncomfortable while the host builds up tension through melodramatic background music and unabashedly artificial pregnant pauses.
They could just announce the winners, but they have to fill the hour, so they sort the contestants into groups and move them around, and throw in musical guests with their own albums to sell, all the while eliminating contestants one at a time. Of course, they carefully split the last set of results across a commercial break. Then the cameraman zooms in to the contestants’ faces hoping they will cry.
This formula made the Fox Network enough money to wipe out the national debt so naturally all of the other networks cloned it. They did play with the formula a bit. What that means is, they focused on the parts that appealed to humanity’s basest natures: eating testicles (Fear Factor), crying (The Bachelor), backstabbing (The Apprentice), screaming (Hell’s Kitchen), violence (Jersey Shore), and Parisites (The Simple Life).
I do have one guilty pleasure: America’s Got Talent. It’s pure formula, but through the magic of DVR I can fast forward through the artificial drama to get to the acts. Some of them are world class, and the producers make sure there is a lot of variety.
The show jumped the shark this year, though. They had less acts, and they spent endless time on banter between the judges and the host. Who tunes into a talent show to watch the judges?
Plus the shows got shorter and they kept repeating them. I assume that was to pay for the outlandish salaries these judges get. Ironic isn’t it? Reality show judges get $15-$20 million per season to do stuff we fast forward through.
The one that has impressed me so far is The Voice. They tossed out The Freak Show and the judges don’t get to insult the contestants. Plus the judges aren’t just talking heads — they are coaches who join in the competition. There is no screaming, backstabbing, eating of pig rectums…
Come to think of it, does The Voice even qualify as a reality show?