The Enduring Reality Craze
Comment by Mark Lacter
Crass. Demeaning. Sexist. Voyeuristic. Silly. Unrealistic. Them’s the fighten’ words that have punctuated many a newspaper column in recent weeks over ABC’s romantic/reality/sweepstakes serial, “The Bachelor,” which ended its run the other week. And now that Nielsen Media Research has spoken, throw in another two words: ratings winner.
The hour-long finale on April 25 drew more than 18 million viewers, easily beating NBC’s sitcom duo of “Will & Grace” and “Just Shoot Me.” And while CBS’ “CSI” crime show won the 9-10 p.m. slot, “The Bachelor” landed first among the coveted 18-34 age bracket. For a network programmer, finishing first in the middle of Thursday prime time is about as good as it gets.
For connoisseurs of reality programming, none of this should be that surprising. Starting with the launch of “Survivor,” these non-scripted, limited run adventures have gone from summer replacement experiments to critical programming components. They are not always successful, of course, but then again, neither are the dramas and sitcoms they have been replacing. And when they do hit gold, the ensuing attention tends to lift all nearby shows on the schedule. If you have doubts, ask CBS President Leslie Moonves what “Survivor” did to that network’s bottom line.
Just pity the programmer who must figure out the hits from the misses. It’s no less cockeyed an assignment than a studio boss choosing one movie script over another. And yet, there are some patterns about how these reality shows work out.
Like most anything in Hollywood, it helps to have an intriguing yet straightforward concept as with “The Bachelor,” in which a guy is given 25 women from which to date and then, one-by-one, he gradually eliminates all but one as a potential mate. Consider the viewer-sensitive bases these producers covered: romance, sex, competition, mystery plus, we don’t have to keep watching for weeks before a final decision gets played out. In fact, ratings for “The Bachelor” kept building throughout the series.
Which brings up another essential ingredient: buzz. Love it, hate it, just be sure to talk about it. What creates that buzz is probably more happenstance than orchestration, but it always centers on the “characters.” In “The Bachelor,” Alex Michel was a catch by most standards, but he was just goofy enough and just vulnerable enough to make him seem like a regular Joe. In other words, attainable. And in the end, the woman he selected seemed attainable too: pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous, educated but hardly an over-achiever. The guy could have gone for the chirpy Miami Heat dancer, but true love or at least the seedlings of it won out after all. In terms of audience satisfaction, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Sitcom writers need not be reminded of this. May is usually the time of year when network shows staff up for the fall season, but between news magazines, game shows and now reality series, their place in the prime time canvas is getting slimmer and slimmer. That’s not only bad news for writers, but actors, directors and all the crafts folk who have built their careers on television work.
TV watchers have their finicky side and it’s possible that after a while they’ll tire of real people being placed in unreal circumstances. But it won’t happen soon: new versions of “Survivor” and “The Bachelor” are being ramped up and along with it will come yet more ridiculous ideas that try to capture the national zeitgeist for a moment or two.
Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.