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December 27 2004

Reality can't beat good scripts. "Buffy had me every week for seven years, and I still miss her. The future of television is in its scripted series and creative personnel, not in knockoff competitions among real people. "

Maybe instead of fighting for shows that get canceled early, genre fans need to do a website that's unti-reality tv, send out flyers, don't watch this or that, and indirectly, it will help out future well scripted shows, if reality tv is wearing, we can help the process, together we can kill realtiy tv. :D And Joss would raise a glass to that as well.

Saving grace is dvds as well, no one wants to buy a reality tv show season on dvd, thank god for that!

[ edited by SeanValen on 2004-12-27 22:24 ]

[ edited by SeanValen on 2004-12-27 22:24 ]
Nice article - couldn't agree more. Luckily, I think TV audiences are starting (finally!) to get bored with reality as well. I'm thrilled that shows like the Apprentice and the Bachelor are losing viewers, and there was a recent EW article about the networks fared in 2004 that talked about badly Fox did because it put all its eggs in the reality basket. Meanwhile, shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives are taking off. All of which gives me hope... (Added to which is the DVD point you made SeanValen - scripted shows can make a killing on DVD, but who wants to buy a season of Survivor for which they already know the winner?)
Now, the thing I'm hoping for is that more networks will take risks on original shows (instead of piling with something like Lost: Antarctica, or Desperate Houseboys), and be willing to stick with those shows even when ratings don't come instantly (cheers to UPN for, so far at least, standing by Veronica Mars). I'm not a big TV fan, but to me, by far the best use of the medium is the dickensian, serialized drama, that keeps you waiting week after week for the next development. It doesn't really matter to me if i watch or don't watch an episode of CSI, but I made darn sure I taped every episode of Buffy I wasn't around for, and I'm doing the same with Lost, even though i don't think it's quite up to the same quality.
Actually, I have a friend who is addicted to reality shows and she does buy the Survivor DVDs. I had never seen Survivor before and wasn't very interested in it, but she and I made a deal that she would try Buffy if I tried Survivor. So I watched the first season of Survivor and watched it in 3 days. It had me hooked for those 3 days, but after that, I couldn't stand to watch the special footage DVD set she gave me. I was so sick of it by then. Sure, it was entertaining for a while, but you know how much I've thought about Survivor since then? Zilch. Buffy, on the other hand, lives on in my imagination and that can last a lifetime.

My friend is now a Buffy addict, but she still watches reality shows too. I still don't get that, but at least she gets Buffy. She told me that I'm the only one she knows who likes Buffy as much as she does. I want to tell her, get more friends! Haha.
Not that most reality shows aren't scripted...
Lost: Antarctica, acp? I can just see it.

Omigod - what's a polar bear doing in Antarctica?

Well, they're native here.

Um, no, that's penguins. That's one mean looking penguin, with the four legs and the teeth.

also-
Zamm: right you are
I think the reason that reality TV has taken off with the networks in such a big way is the superficial method of working out advertising revenue in American television.

The amount of money they get from advertisers is based on the viewing figures during sweeps. Reality TV gets high viewing figures because it's like background music; someone gets home from a long day at work and they can veg out in front of some unintelligent non-challenging dross on the idiot box. Reality TV can be put on and ignored while you're doing other things. It doesn't require concentration because it's unlikely that you're going to miss some plot point that is going to render all that follows confusing. So it has high viewers.

However, although it has high viewers, people aren't paying attention in the way they would with a serialised drama. They aren't invested in what is happening, and thus, one would assume, are paying attention to the adverts even less than they normally would. So higher ratings isn't automatically a good thing for advertisers.

Secondly, as someone else mentioned, fictional stories provide so much other revenue for networks. Look at something like Cheers for NBC. A huge show that earned them a hell of a lot of money when it first started, from advertising and from merchandise. Then, today, it continues to earn them money from syndication, from being released on VHS, and from now being released on DVD. A fictional show might not immediately pay off, but it's a long-term investment that will be ten times more rewarding in the long run than a reality TV show ever would or could be. Inevitably, I think we're going to see the pendulum swing back.

Let's just hope there are still some good writers left on the small screen when it does.
I understand the author's sentiments regarding alleged "reality" television versus fictional dramadies. However, I feel there is a place for both genres to coexist. If I had my druthers, reality shows would cease to exist, and we'd fill up the prime time hours with more of The Lost, CSI, and Crossing Jordan. That's me. There's a few hundred million other people out there who also watch tv. I'd also want a whole network that was nothing but Whedon produced or influenced television (I want Oz the Series dammit). We can't always get what we want.

I actually find entertainment value in The Biggest Loser. As reality shows go, it's fun and despite the backstabbing, the goal of improving oneself being its own reward even if you don't win.. I like what TBL is trying to say.

I do not like shows where a rich guy flaunts money in front of people like me to get them to jump his hurdles and play his games. I show my disdain by not tuning in. The Apprentice, so far as I'm concerned, isn't on television at all. I also don't watch Wife Swap, the Bachelor franchise, or High School Reunion, because I don't find such blatant producer-manipulated use of friendships or family relationships entertaining. I don't watch Springer for similar reasons. Although I don't have a Nielsen box and have no direct influence on deciding what shows get on and what shows don't, I simply do not support programs that I find unenjoyable.

Some reality shows win me over despite my natural disdain for them. Extreme Makeover Home Edition is smarmy and mushy and it unabashedly grabs your heart strings for an hour without letting go. I wanted to hate it. However, it's also fun, witty, fast-paced, informative and I know it's an hour long informercial for Sears but if all informercials were produced this well, I might actually accept infomercials as a viable genre. I still don't want to like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, but I gotta give credit where it's due. They pull me in and don't let go for an hour. Isn't that what a tv show is supposed to do?

It's not whether a show is 'reality-based' or fictional that determines it's potential to suck. That's just one factor of many. For me, if the show has anything to do with plastic surgery, I steer clear whether it's reality or fiction. Nip & Tuck? NO thank you. Just because it's a fictional show about plastic surgery, that doesn't insure it'll be better than a reality based show that focuses on young women physically manipulating their bodies to look more symmetrical.

I hate Desperate Housewives. I don't know why. I understand that Desperate Housewives is winning people over like gangbusters. I've tried Desperate Housewives for several episodes and it leaves me cold and I really don't care which character dies or who has sex with whom or whether or not that little kid's gonna tell on the adulteress. I don't even recall anyone's names. It's a well produced, well written, well directed program with good pacing and the talent is beautiful and talented and it's funny and blah blah blah - I hate every minute of it. I stopped tuning in cuz watching cars rust is more interesting to me. Should I make a website telling the world they're wrong and they should not watch D.H. because it'll rot out their brains? No.

There are people out there who will support Survivor 11. There are people waiting with baited breath for Simon Cowell to return to American Idol. There's people who want to see family members fight over who's gonna get their dead relative's money. There's a market for such garbage, and in a capitalist society, where there's a demand there's going to be a need for supply. That's the American way.

We never claimed to be a country of good taste. There's no reason to start now.
Excellent article. I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of reality TV. Because the networks flooded the airwaves with 'copycat' shows this year, the public's interest are starting to fade. I recently read that this year's ratings of 'Apprentice' and 'Survivor' were down 30%. They're still earning money for the network, but I think they can see the handwriting on the wall. This CNN article on 'Desperate Housewives' discusses the point well. Though we may see some copying of successful shows such as 'Lost', I hope this is a sign that the networks are willing to give the well-scripted dramas a chance again. The sooner that happens, the sooner we can get Jossverse back on the little screen.
And you have got to know what it is like in Australia- we get every piece of American reality crap, every piece of British reality crap and then make our versions of those and then show them simultaneously!!

At one stage last year, we had on American Idol from the previous year, the current season American Idol, World Idol AND f@#&ing Austrailan Idol! To quote one of my favourite childhood characters, "Oh the pain, the pain!"
Zachsmind, I don't think the problem is that people have different taste in TV - of course they will, and they always have, and there's room for lots of different types of shows. the problem, for me at least, is that TV was getting to a point where networks seemed so convinced that reality was the answer that they were giving up on scripted shows, particularly on long-running serial dramas that required some viewer devotion from week to week. And I thought that was a shame. I have no problem with some reality staying on, but I hope we can have a TV landscape with room for The Amazing Race and CSI AND a few high-quality serialized dramas as well. And that's why I'm encouraged by the success that shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives (which I"ve never seen) are having, and the fact that some reality shows are tanking. finally, it seems, some execs are waking up to the fact that if a reality show is poorly conceived and if it's glutting the market it will be a bad business decision, despite its low cost. And that if a drama is well-written and has interesting characters, viewers really will stick with it.
For a while there, I was worried we were headed into one-dimensional TV terrain. But now i have hope that things are changing...
Hey, Catalyst2: And you have got to know what it is like in Australia- we get every piece of American reality crap, every piece of British reality crap and then make our versions of those and then show them simultaneously!!
Well, you sent us "Neighbours" a very long time ago - and inflicted Kylie on the world! Perhaps we can call it quits now and get rid of them all?(Hopeful as ever)
Yeah but we didn't even have enough sense to stop making Neighbours once we sent it overseas - I noticed on the promos this week it is the twentieth season! The shame, the shame!
I've just read an article on this very subject with FOX. It stated that the network had loaded up on reality which had kept it afloat for the past two seasons and then, it had sunk like a rock this season.

From FOX exec VP Preston Beckman: "I think we put all our eggs in a basket that was already starting to wear. We maybe overdid it with unscripted."

There's hope yet.
Can I get an "Amen!"?
I don't get why they're calling it 'unscripted' now. Everyone knows its all planned out.

I'm with ZachsMind and acp on this. There's room for all types of programs. I think we all just backlashed against reality tv because it was, and still is, way too in our faces (also, yeah, most of it's crap). Whenever something becomes hugely popular, it rarely stays that way. Here's hoping bad reality tv soon becomes the Spice Girls of the airwaves.

Catalyst2, nice Dr. Smith reference. :)
I don't think anyone is claiming that reality TV is simply going to disappear entirely, merely that perhaps the overexposure it's suffered in the last couple of years is beginning to fade.

We simply need some sort of balance.
"Unscripted" isn't a bad substitute for "reality-based" as a nomenclature for this genre. They need to start calling it something other than "reality tv" cuz it's not. Seinfeld was more realistic than Dog Eat Dog. The CSI franchise is more believable than My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance. The difference is that in "unscripted" programs, the principal performers are not given a script. The producers do still have a detailed outline that they follow however, and editors invent the equivalent of a story in post production, whether it's the truth or not. I think I'll start trying to use "unscripted" in place of "reality-based" in my every day usage. See how that works. I'd prefer "unscripted" to be the household word.

Unscripted television is not going to go away. They're simply going to have to do it better, and like any new genre of storytelling in the video medium, they're going to have growing pains and they're going to make mistakes. The question is, do they learn from those mistakes and improve upon them?

In the early days of the Oprah Winfrey show, her programs weren't much different than Sally Jesse Raphael or Rikki Lake. The primary difference was while other hosts would help rile their audiences to a fervor, Oprah tried to restrain them somewhat, and focused on solving issues rather than just complaining about them, similar to Phil Donahue before her. Oprah embraced what works and what got a favorable response from her audience and chunked the rest. While her competition went for whatever got a rise out of people and caused them to vent hostility, Oprah went for what tugged at the heart strings and lifted people's spirits. The result is she's still a staple of American daytime television, and most of her competitors have either faded into latenight syndication or disappeared entirely. Oprah learned from the mistakes of her genre while the others did not. Now Ellen Degeneres is picking up where Oprah left off and taking the daytime talkshow genre in a whole new direction which may crash and burn or take off like a rocket. Daytime talkshows didn't disappear. Time just eroded away the bad eggs and kept the good ones.

The same will happen to unscripted programs. The longevity of shows like Survivor, Fear Factor and Amazing Race indicate that audiences are not stupid: they know ultimately any show like this is a game show with contestants competing. The soap opera of interpersonal relationships is a side order. What's important are the challenges. Survivor and Fear Factor know this. Amazing Race will either learn or not. OR it'll figure out how to make us care when a husband berates his wife for not running faster to the ferry.

What I'm waiting on is a series that turns the interpersonal relationships into a challenge successfully, in a manner that an audience enjoys in a positive manner. In order to truly compete with fictional television in a way that would threaten fictional television's permanency, unscripted television would need to combine the unscripted and scripted styles of television successfully, where a "reality-based" show would elbow its way into storytelling territory. Shows like Candid Camera and Jamie Kennedy Experiment did this in brief spurts for shock value with moderate success. Fox had a more immersive show called something like "Murder At Town X" that did this, but not successfully.

Take anywhere from one to four 'contestants' and put them in a small town set populated by actors. Make the setting medieval or a western or modern day backwater, and through improvisational theater make them and the audience feel as though they've been transported. Don't do it tongue in cheek and don't be too serious about it or it won't work. A fine line would have to be drawn. Turn your contestants, or perhaps more appropriately titled "marks", into the principal roles in a fictional storyline that revolves around them and changes with their decisions. Then put the contestants, or "marks," in situations that appear risky physically or emotionally, and see how your rats run through the maze. How could this be done while letting the contestants in on it? How could it be done so that the marks don't know what's happening to them?

Unscripted television isn't ready for that. They can't do it right yet. When unscripted television can tell moral dilemma stories as realistically as fictional television, while capturing the emotion and humanity of its contestants, THAT is when fictional television will need to start worrying. Not before. That day is a long time from now. Anyone who saw "The Real Gilligan's Island" can attest to that. However, an unscripted version of Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner" now THAT would be a sight to see. It'd probably also be a little illegal. One would have to kidnap their contestants against their will or it just wouldn't be believable or thrilling. So like I said, it's a long time coming, and it may not even be possible legally for unscripted television to truly compete with scripted television on its own turf.
Thank God for the Sci-Fi channel. Scare Tactics is the only good reality show on television, and you know why? Becuase it's fucking hilarious. That's why.
ZachsMind, that was fascinating. No, I mean it. All by yourself, you've drawn my attention to the possibilities of "unscripted" TV after I've been spitting at it non-stop for the last five years. If you want to go all the way with your suggestion, we could be dealing with a fusion of commercial TV with interactive computer gaming environments, where people inhabit characters for months, even years. But that's a quantum leap beyond anything that's on TV now.

Again, fascinating stuff, ZM.
I think 'unscripted' is almost as inacurate as 'reality TV' since things are fake, controlled and pushed in desired directions far before the editing room. But that's semantics, and I can't think of another suitable name myself, so.... (Except...how about 'sheer dreck'??)

I agree it's not going to go away. It's here and here to stay and I don't even mind that. What I mind, and what I hope will change at SOME point, is that it's pushing almost everything else to the side. It's practically unavoidable and other types of show don't get a chance. Also, reality shows tend to carry an inherent ugliness with them. More than ever, it's about absolutely nothing but the bottom line: ratings. There have been many shows in the past that were allowed to have a chance, that were allowed to grow, that made points, that said something about society and humanity. Reality shows are cheap, and got ratings. That's all there is to them.

The only point I can see in them is that humanity is even greedier, lower, more petty, vicious and shallow and hungrier for any type of fame than even in my worst nightmares.

Also, except for in the first seasons of the first big ones, no contestant is 'real' anymore. Everyone by now knows what these things are and everyone involved wants to get famous. Hopes to be discovered, to get rich, to get their own talk show or write that book or get that hit single. 'Real' people....please. No one I know or want to know would be caught dead in most of them.

I'll never understand why people trying to stab each other in the back is something I should want to watch. Or why I should watch upper class, preppy, snooty, greedy snots trying to suck up to billionaires who are bored with 'just' being the richest men in the world and also wanna be on TeeVeeeee. Or watch American Idol crank out yet another vapid lounge singer or Britney/Whitney clone while their real counterparts are already over the hill. Nothing but the same cookie cutter R&B/pop ballads are allowed. And I promise you, 10 years from now we won't even remember who won any of the seasons.

Can't be bothered to go and vote for the presidency, but we gotta vote for Fantasia 25 times per hour. Gawd, maybe we deserve reality TV. Maybe this is who we are...

Do I watch anything of it? Well there's a few offbeat ones....'Airport' is sometimes funny because it's not really a reality show like the rest. Just little vignettes of airport problems that could happen to all of us. Nobody competing or voting or backstabbing. Just people being pissed at their flights being cancelled or attendants trying to deal with unreasonable people. We catch it sometimes.

I think 'Punk'd' is funny, if that counts as Reality TV. Never get enough of laughing at rich famous people made fools of right?;-)

And Zachsmind, sorry I don't see your R-TV shows happening. If the contestants are aware, then they know everyone is just a bunch of actors and it can't be either dramatic or meaningful since everyone's just playing along to a game. (Also, this 'Truman-like' set-up would probably be planned and controlled from the start, and like many other R-TV shows today, basically already become a form of 'scripted'.) If the contestants are not aware, then what we have is another manipulative show that indeed has 'rats in a maze' which, frankly is a main element that turns me off reality shows to begin with.

Im just waiting for R-TV to get over that hill, and for fiction to make a comeback. Fans of the dreck can cling to whatever reality shows survive and that's fine. It exists now and it will always be around in some form, but if it becomes managably avoidable for me, then I don't care. To each their own.

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