There’s no escaping reality

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Alternative and reality shows-which have never been regarded as meritorious programming forms by TV critics-are nonetheless getting their day in the sun when it comes to ratings, ad revenues and now the Emmy Awards.
More than any other entries, CBS’s two versions of “Survivor” appear to have set the high bar in critics’ minds, while everything else in the reality and alternative genres has been relegated to the status of derivative rip-off. The winter-spring sequel “Survivor: The Australian Outback” led all reality/competition series, ranking seventh overall in the “best series” poll (see chart, Page 16)-and moving up eight notches from the series’ first appearance in EM’s winter 2000 poll.
“I love `Survivor,’ an editing marvel, but can’t stand the rest-the same as I like [ABC’s] `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ but not the other game show clones that came in its wake,” said John Kiesewetter, TV critic for The Cincinnati Enquirer, who seemed to typify the critics’ sentiments. “`Survivor’ and `Millionaire’ remain the gold standards of these shows.”
A game show in its purest form, “Millionaire’s” unorthodox approach in prime time over the past three years often has lumped it in with alternative/reality series. “Millionaire” was voted by critics as second-ranked alternative series on the commercial broadcast networks (46th-ranked in the overall best series poll) but actually comes in third behind PBS’s “American High” (35th-ranked overall). From there, it’s nada on the “best” list for any other reality or game show series, excluding news and documentary programming.
“Reality remains a niche product led by two well-executed shows-`Survivor’ and `Millionaire’-and one novelty, `Temptation Island’ [Fox], whose collective appeal will die over the course of the 2001-02 season,” predicted Kay McFadden of The Seattle Times.
That negative view is almost universally reflected by the critics voting eight alternative/reality series as the top 21 “worst” shows polled (see chart, Page 16)-including a 20th-place ranking for “Survivor” (10 points) and 21st slot for Fox’s “Boot Camp” (9 points).
Topping the alternative/reality stinker list is Fox’s “Temptation Island,” followed by UPN’s “Chains of Love,” MTV’s “Jackass,” NBC’s “Weakest Link,” CBS’s “Big Brother” and NBC’s “Fear Factor.” Interestingly, ABC’s “The Mole” failed to gain mention on either the “best” or “worst” list, which could be somewhat of a consolation in either case.

NBC’s hidden-camera show “Spy TV,” which some critics cited as “Candid Camera” turned cruel, did not debut until June 21, around the time the last of the votes were being returned and tabulated.
Despite the overwhelmingly negative response to alternative/reality series, 67 percent of the critics think the programming forms will not burn out anytime soon and could be a growing staple on the broadcast and cable networks.
“As a full-time loather of so-called `reality shows,’ tomorrow can’t get here quickly enough if it brings the demise of this brainless genre,” said David Glasier, critic for The (Cleveland) News-Herald. “But if 35 million people watch `Survivor’ and 16 million people watch `Temptation Island,’ there is zero incentive for network executives to walk away from a programming form that generates a tidal wave of ad dollars without the annoyance of paying actors and writers the going rate.”
“Despite horrors like `Chains of Love’ [UPN] and `Fear Factor’ [NBC], the success of `Survivor: The Australian Outback’ indicates there is still a place in viewers’ homes for reality-based programming, provided it is well thought out and skillfully executed,” added Alex Strachan of the The Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun, with a somewhat guarded tone.
Indeed, “Survivor” and other nonscripted alternative/reality series will get their first-time shot at a pair of special “outstanding” nonfiction programming categories at the upcoming Emmy Awards. Reality competition series that feature cash and other award prizes-such as “Survivor,” “The Mole,” “Boot Camp” and “Big Brother”-will be eligible for nominations in the nonfiction “special class.” In the other nonfiction “reality” category, more traditional reality series such as Fox’s “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” could find themselves competing against “Temptation Island,” “Jackass” and “Chains of Love,” none of which featured prizes.
Much to the chagrin of the networks and reality-series producers, though, it appears the two nonfiction awards are not ready for prime time.
As the next up to air the Emmy Awards on Sept. 16, CBS had unsuccessfully lobbied to get the two nonfiction categories included in the prime-time telecast, on which the Eye Network could easily hype a “Survivor” outstanding series win. However, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is sticking to its guns to place the nonfiction categories within the daytime Creative Arts Awards on Sept. 8.
Game shows such as “Millionaire” and “Weakest Link” will remain up for consideration for the Daytime Emmys, presented in the spring by the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.