Ratings show viewers would rather watch ordinary people than watch sitcom actors pretending to be ordinary people.
Reality bites traditional TV staples
WASHINGTON // In the 1960s, the American artist Andy Warhol said that even the Average Joe would get 15 minutes of fame. He was wrong. The Average Joe has his own TV shows now, and most of them run closer to an hour.
Americans are obsessed with reality television shows - or programmes that feature ordinary people such as soccer moms, housewives and severely overweight dieters instead of actors - and they have permanently altered the television landscape in the process. Morning talk show hosts analyse them, blog writers and fan clubs are devoted to them, and, much to the dismay of Hollywood scriptwriters - who like to think their work is higher brow - dozens more reality shows will debut this autumn with huge audiences lying in wait.
"We believe reality is far from over; it is just beginning," said Bob Boden, senior vice president of programming, production and development for the Fox Reality Channel, a 24-hour cable network devoted to the genre. "Reality TV has got stories, it's got dramas, it's got tears, laughter and romance - it's got all of the things you come to expect from scripted television." That includes lots of viewers. In fact, the genre has eclipsed in popularity traditional staples like drama series and sitcoms.
Ten of the top 20 shows in the 2007-2008 broadcast TV season were reality shows, including six of the top 10, according to the Nielsen Company, which tracks such data. A decade ago, by contrast, seven of the top 10 shows were sitcoms. Fox's American Idol, the "reality competition" where singers compete for a record deal, snagged the top two spots in the national ratings last season with its two weekly episodes. It had an average viewership of 27 million.
Fuelling the reality revolution are a drove of cable channels that have flooded the market with shows ranging from Bravo TV Network's Real Housewives of Atlanta to The Learning Channel's The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom. Even the experts are having trouble keeping up. "There is as much of this stuff on the air as there ever has been before," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, who also noted that one-liners from reality shows, such as "You're fired" from Donald Trump's The Apprentice, have developed into ubiquitous catch phrases.
"This type of thing is really at the top of the cultural agenda," Mr Thompson said. "It's become commonplace." America's reality era began in 2000 with the first season of Survivor (Survivor: Borneo), a show inspired by a Swedish programme, Expedition: Robinson, and imported to America by the British producer Mark Burnett, who is considered a pioneer of the genre. "Everyone was shocked when it actually worked," said Mr Burnett, who was named one of the world's most influential people in 2004 by Time magazine. "I think what we were able to learn is that untrained actors, in the right light, can be equally as compelling as trained actors."
Mr Burnett tapped into a concept that had always been on the minds of television executives, said Tim Brooks, a television historian and former executive vice president of research for Lifetime Networks. "There's an old saying in television that the TV screen is a mirror - that what people basically want is to see themselves," Mr Brooks said. "In so many ways, reality TV was beyond a no-brainer. What took so long?"
Mr Brooks points to elements of reality entertainment dating back to a 1940s programme called Candid Microphone, the precursor of Candid Camera, in which hidden cameras recorded people's reactions to strange occurrences. In the early 1970s, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired a 12-part documentary called An American Family, which followed a California family, the Louds, through their daily lives, which included a separation and the coming out of the couple's 20-year-old son.
But one of the biggest breakthroughs in early reality TV came in 1992 with the debut of MTV's The Real World, where producers placed five strangers in a house and filmed their interactions. Even so, it would be eight years and dozens of sitcoms later before Mr Burnett's Survivor reacquainted America with reality programming and touched off the endless cascade of shows on air today. But what is it about watching reality - and watching ourselves - that is so attractive?
Andy Denhart, publisher of Reality Blurred, a popular website that tracks the reality TV industry, said it boiled down to voyeurism. "From an early age, people love to gossip about their friends and enemies, and reality TV is an evolved - or regressed - version of that," Mr Denhart said. "Reality television is entertainment with consequence," he said. "It's one thing to be absorbed into a fictional universe, and another to watch people and know that what they're going through has, to varying degrees, actually occurred."
But there is an even simpler reason behind reality TV's proliferation: it is cheaper to make. Mr Brooks, the former TV executive, said such programming was attractive to financially strapped networks facing increased competition."You don't have to pay the actors, you don't have to pay writers, and the sets don't usually amount to so much," he said. In fact many of the genre's biggest detractors are those who make a living writing scripts for the small screen, including Alan Stevens, a sitcom writer and former executive producer of the comedy Roseanne, which starred Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a working-class family.
"Let's say they made 50 sitcom pilots a year a few years ago, they might be making like five now," Mr Stevens said. "There's hundreds of sitcom writers out of work, and they are all fighting for the same job." Still, he too admits being a fan of some reality shows, especially The Osbournes, which set cameramen loose inside the bizarre household of the former rocker Ozzy Osbourne and aired until 2005. "It's just hard to come up with ideas that compete with reality," he said. "Some reality shows are genius."