Genre dates to the days of radio
How much is 15 minutes of fame worth? For competitors on today’s reality television shows, it can mean a great deal: instant fame and recognition, a chance to win big money or a vehicle to further an agenda.
“People on reality shows bask in their 15 minutes, but it takes someone with branding and marketing savvy to prolong their fame into long-lasting success,” says Michael Gene Ondrusek, who served as a psychological consultant to the producers of CBS’s “Survivor” during the program’s early seasons.
Ondrusek helped prescreen potential competitors, consulted with producers and the crew, worked on set with castaways and debriefed contestants as they were voted off the island. At first, his job focused on screening out high-risk contestants—those who might not be psychologically stable enough to withstand the pressures of the show or who, if things did not go their way, might sue the show.
“Then it became more about screening ‘in’ interesting people who would make the show more intriguing,” Ondrusek says. “For some contestants, the chance at a $1 million prize was just a postscript. They would have even done it for free.”
Reality TV is nothing new. “Candid Microphone”—the forerunner of “Candid Camera”—delighted radio audiences in the 1940s with people caught unaware on the airwaves in funny and embarrassing situations.
“Other waves of reality TV over the years include Edward R. Murrow’s ‘See It Now,’ ‘Person to Person’ and ‘The Real World’ on MTV,” says Gary Edgerton, author of “The Columbia History of American Television” and dean of the College of Communication at Butler University in Indianapolis. “You can even put TV game shows into this genre. Anything that’s not scripted can be called reality TV.”
The debut of “Survivor” in the summer of 2000 signaled the latest reality TV explosion. The expansion of broadcast channels beyond ABC, CBS, NBC, the CW and Fox during the past 15 years has created a demand for more programming as Netflix, A&E, USA, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the other 640 or so outlets for entertainment seek lower-cost ways to fill their broadcast time.
“Reality TV provided cheap programming and a way to fill time,” Edgerton says. “The casting in these shows creates the real drama. Producers look to create a setting and infuse dramatic conflict, so they look for certain types of contestants to put together, then they shoot loads of footage and create more drama in the editing room.”
Edgerton breaks TV history into the Network Era from 1948-75, the Cable Era from 1976-94 and the Digital Era from 1995 to the present. He credits HBO for jump-starting the cable era with its breakthrough pay-for-service via satellite.
“They innovated to such a degree that they broke away from the pack, and then, as is the case in any popular art, all the other major competitors started to imitate them,” he says.
Edgerton says more than a dozen sub-genres of reality TV are aired today, including dating/romance shows, news documentaries, cooking shows, talent competitions, strength and ability competitions, game shows and talk shows.
Although Edgerton says people are starting to tire of watching reality TV and are shifting back to scripted programming, Ondrusek says reality TV is like “crack” for viewers—and that is a win for the networks.
“It’s successful because of people’s desire to watch what others do in contrived situations,” he says. “It humanizes the viewer’s battle between ‘I’m all over that’ and ‘I wouldn’t do that in a million years or for $1 million’—and some viewers would love the chance to do something on the show differently or better.”
More stunts, challenges and outrageous situations ensure devoted viewers, Ondrusek says.
“The producers and networks look for new models that break new boundaries and up their game,” he explains. “The bottom line is that the networks are in the game to make money, and as long as these programs are successful and profitable, they will continue.”
While participants often view reality TV as a way to open a window to future fame, it does not often work out that way.
“You’ve got a short time to build your brand and get traction, but one thing that reality has fed is the rapid growth of YouTube,” says Ondrusek. “It’s a place where anyone at any time can record anything and become a ‘star.’”