In Depth

Adalian Column: Reality Is the Small Screen’s Survivor

There is no cure for reality TV.

Survivor

"Survivor"

This fact will no doubt crush many who work in the business of television, people who have silently prayed for the end of unscripted programming ever since Richard Hatch first strutted naked across the small screen on “Survivor” in the summer of 2000.

These folks generally regard reality as some sort of mutant virus that needs to be purged from TV’s bloodstream. They regularly pounce on any of the genre’s failures or controversies as an opportunity to proclaim its demise.

Not gonna happen, at least if recent events are any indication. If anything, it turns out that reality shows seem to get better with age, rather than fade out quickly.

Last week, ABC’s “The Bachelor” ended its 13th season with a blockbuster finale that scored higher ratings than younger, supposedly “hotter” shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes,” “The Office” and “House.” A series that just a year or two ago was presumed dead by most industry insiders was suddenly dominating the pop culture zeitgeist, from the pages of People to the global Internet partyline that is Twitter.

Meanwhile, CBS last month announced it’s bringing back “Survivor” for its 19th and 20th cycles next season. “Ugly Betty” and “My Name Is Earl” have tried to steal the spotlight away from time to time, but nearly a decade after it premiered, “Survivor” continues to dominate the 8 p.m. hour on Thursdays.

Over at NBC, one of the network’s biggest success stories this season has been the surging ratings for “The Biggest Loser.” Marking its fifth year in October, the franchise continues to lure audiences, even against the biggest show on TV, Fox’s “American Idol.”

The Biggest Loser

"The Biggest Loser"

And speaking of “Idol,” despite the best efforts of some journalists (and everyone who works at networks not named Fox) to spin otherwise, in its eighth season, the series remains a dominant force in pop culture. Its ratings are down somewhat, but it has shed viewers much more slowly than the typical scripted hit.

Likewise, even if ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” suffers a bit of erosion this month without the presence of rubbernecker magnet Cloris Leachman, it almost certainly will continue to attract millions more viewers than most comedies or dramas currently on TV. And that’s after more than 125 episodes.

There are other unscripted tentpoles of varying ages and success levels scattered across the TV landscape.

“The Amazing Race,” which also has cheated death a few times, continues to do a nice job anchoring CBS’ Sunday lineup. “Hell’s Kitchen” has helped Fox turn Thursdays from an embarrassment into an asset, while in the summertime, CBS’ “Big Brother” and Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” dominate the warm-weather cultural scene.

And on the cable side of the business, MTV’s never-ending “The Real World” cannot be ignored (even if it becomes less and less real with each successive season). Bravo’s “Project Runway” has grown big enough to spark multimillion-dollar legal wars between giant conglomerates.

The recent success of “The Bachelor,” however, is the clearest proof of just how indestructible the reality genre has become.

This was a series, after all, that went from a peak of 25 million viewers in 2002 down to barely 8 million in 2005. It has been copied so many times, by so many networks, even the original was beginning to feel a bit like a parody of itself.

ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson easily could have decided to ditch the show when he took over the network. He chose to stick with it.

“I saw it as a great asset that had fallen on hard times creatively,” Mr. McPherson told me recently.

A good call, clearly.

“It’s a miracle, man,” creator Mike Fleiss told me last month. “How many shows have reversed a trend like this?”

Mr. Fleiss traces the turning point for his show’s resurgence to 2007, when Bachelor Brad opted to reject both his suitors. Since then, “Rather than force the format (onto the contestants), we’ve made the show more real and less predictable,” he said.

That statement likely will produce guffaws among the cynical types who found last week’s “Bachelor” finale to be the ultimate in reality show manipulation. No way, these folks argue, did Bachelor Jason decide on his own to change his mind about which woman he loved.

Given the ratings and fierce reactions from viewers, however, it’s clear that millions of Americans had no problem believing in the genuineness of the unscripted drama ABC served up last week.

Those who doubt the power of such programming continue to underestimate the very real appeal of a TV genre that shows no signs of fading any time soon.