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Editorial: In reality, TV is fooling itself

Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Welcome to the Golden Age of Trash TV, in which the sleazy reality formula-cheap production values plus an outlandish premise equals big ratings for little cash outlay-makes life a romp for network programmers. Too good to be true? You bet it is.
It seems the sleazier and more offensive the concept (read “Joe Millionaire”), the better the numbers will be. If feeding the contestants large bugs each week on “Fear Factor” doesn’t pack the punch it once did, let ’em eat horse’s rectum-as NBC convinced them to do last week. Never mind that the lack of viewer loyalty and the relatively short lifespan of most fly-by-night reality “hits” will inevitably come back to bite the networks in their collective, uh, horse’s rectum. Clearly, these are the halcyon days of short-attention-span theater-and TV programmers are determined to make hay while the sun shines.
But those programming wizards are accomplishing more than merely turning us into a nation of voyeuristic buffoons. In the process, they are also damaging the medium that has served them-and has served society-reasonably well for half a century. As the industry struggles with an unprecedented array of economic and technological challenges, the reality “solution” could be the straw that finally breaks television’s back.
The hidden costs are already beginning to surface. Reality shows typically don’t hold up to a second airing, and the stunting and short runs associated with most of them have played havoc with midseason schedules-forcing the networks to scramble in January to fill an unprecedented number of holes in their lineups.
Of greater concern, networks that are counting on reality to hold viewers are learning-or will soon learn-a hard lesson in loyalty. Its a lesson ABC learned a couple of years ago when it tried to milk the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” franchise for more than it was worth. The demise of “Millionaire” left ABC without viewers and without the solid programming needed to bring them back. The network is still trying to recover.
The reality feeding frenzy is taking a toll on traditional programming. In a TV landscape littered with overhyped sleaze-each new show more outrageous than the last-it’s harder for decent scripted dramas to gain a foothold, to build the kind of audience that will establish the next “West Wing” or “CSI,” an audience that can ensure a show a productive and profitable spot in the lineup for the next seven or eight years.
Without long-term hits, networks will continue to see viewer erosion and will face ongoing schedule disruption. While they complain about the effects of a fragmented marketplace, they are feeding it. And it’s no great leap from the loss of network loyalty to a loss of loyalty toward broadcast television as a whole, which is already being widely felt.
The shortsighted reality model is no way to run a network, and it’s no way to run an industry. Like the central figure in “Joe Millionaire,” reality, in the final analysis, will turn out to be less than advertised. And like the inevitable outcome of “Joe Millionaire,” someone is bound to get hurt.