Editorial: The Reality Is Quality Counts

May 12, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As the broadcast nets make their program selections this week for the fall season they would do well to adopt a healthy degree of skepticism about reality programming and keep the bigger picture in mind.
Fox’s megahit American Idol, the most successful of the current crop of reality shows, has caught programmers’ attention, to be sure, as it propels Fox to the front of the pack in May sweeps. But the resounding thud with which the network’s Married by America went over demonstrates that reality for reality’s sake is hardly a formula for success and that copycat programming can be a costly mistake.
The success of American Idol is no fluke. Among the current crop of reality shows, Idol does set the standard, with high production value, genuinely talented contestants and a compelling breakout star in shoot-from-the-hip judge Simon Cowell. Idol raises the bar for shows of its ilk the way Survivor did a few seasons ago and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire did before that.
The scrapheap of failed reality shows, meanwhile, continues to grow: Are You Hot, Mr. Personality, Married By America and All American Girl were all slapped together in a rush to cash in on the latest trend and have been largely rejected by viewers.
The bottom line is that viewers aren’t as dumb as programmers want to believe; they know quality when they see it and they want to see more of it. They also know the difference between manipulation and entertainment and continue to gravitate toward good scripted shows. From Fox’s 24 to CBS’s CSI , HBO’s The Sopranos and NBC’s Law & Order franchise, the quality drama formula is alive and well, building viewer loyalty while strengthening network brands.
Similarly, NBC’s Friends, CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond and Fox’s The Simpsons prove the tried-and-true sitcom formula, handled properly, can create a profitable franchise.
It’s too early to tell whether American Idol will have legs. The demise of Millionaire proved just how fleeting sudden success can be, and even that most durable CBS reality franchise, Survivor, isn’t the steamroller it once was.
But the strategic implications are clear: The networks would be wise to stop underestimating the viewer and instead embrace and celebrate the savvy viewer, to cash in on the awareness that the viewer is a good judge of television. Stunt if you must, and fill those tough spots in the schedule with cheesy reality if it is absolutely necessary, but it is imperative to leave room in the schedule and the budget for quality scripted programming.
It’s hardly a revolutionary message, but it is a message that, given the trend toward schlock in recent years, needs to be remembered.