These are challenging times for the folks who run the reality TV departments at the broadcast networks.
But for the most part, network TV has quietly slipped into a reality recession. Not counting pure game shows, the last big unscripted series to truly shake up the TV landscape was “Dancing With the Stars,” which premiered in 2005.
The best cure for this creative crisis in reality, of course, is innovation. Networks need to start taking real risks with reality, trying formats and ideas that are wholly unique rather than simply serving up slight tweaks on shows that have worked before. Any producer who pitches a competition series with a panel of three judges ought to be shot on sight; if one of those judges has a British accent or is dumber than dirt, the body of said producer ought to be dragged through the streets of Burbank as a warning to the rest of the reality world.
As they search for brand-spanking-new ideas, however, maybe network reality czars should take a page from the programming playbooks of their prime-time peers on the scripted side of the business.
Right now—for better or worse—remakes are all the rage at the networks. If the stars align a certain way, this time next year viewers could find themselves trying to decide between new versions of “Hawaii Five-O,” “Melrose Place,” “The Partridge Family” and “V.”
So why shouldn’t reality suits head back to their vaults? Hard to believe, but it’s been nearly a decade since “Survivor” launched the modern era of unscripted television. During that time, there have been hundreds of reality shows on broadcast and cable that have come and gone.
Some had a quick impact, but then faded just as fast. Others never broke through at all, or were halted before they got to the air. Many attracted cult followings and decent ratings, but somehow didn’t manage to survive.
Like, for example, “Rock Star”—aka, the most bad-ass show ever to air on the CBS television network.
Produced by Mark Burnett, “Rock Star” was sort of the anti-“American Idol.” While it shared the same goal as Fox’s iconic series—finding musical superstars—“Rock Star” took a grittier, less Disney-esque approach to the process.
David Goffin, who ran “Rock Star” for Mr. Burnett, said the series gave music fans a peek into “a world that TV had never shown them. And it was real. A real band, real music, a real passion for their craft. Our fans flat-out loved the show.”
CBS gave “Rock Star” two seasons in 2005 and 2006 to find an audience. The first was devoted to finding a new lead singer for INXS; the second summer was spent searching for someone to join a made-up supergroup headed by Tommy Lee.
“Rock Star” generated very nice ratings among younger viewers who don’t normally watch CBS, but some executives at the network just never got the show. Maybe there were too many long-haired folks with tattoos.
In any case, CBS opted not to renew “Rock Star” after its summer 2006 run. But given how little success the network has had with new reality concepts since then, network reality chief Jennifer Bresnan ought to consider finding a way to revive the show. Mr. Goffin even has some ideas about who might topline the show if it came back.
“I understand Led Zeppelin, or at least Page, Jones and Bonham Jr., want to tour—but [Robert] Plant does not want to sing,” he said. “They say they are looking for a lead singer to tour with. The home-run would be ‘Rock Star: Led Zeppelin.’”
Something tells me viewers would show a whole lotta love to that idea.
While “Rock Star” is the reality show most deserving of a new life, there are some other dearly departed unscripted series that merit resurrection. Rounding out my top 10:
“Are You Hot?”: For many readers, this list just jumped the shark—but hear me out. This Mike Fleiss-created beauty pageant for ABC was indeed one of the most outrageous, crass reality shows ever to grace the airwaves of a broadcast network (and considering Mike Darnell’s contributions to the genre, that’s saying a lot). But the genius of this show was the way in which it reveled in mocking the vanity and self-obsession of its contestants, and of our body-focused culture as a whole. And how can you not love a show that featured Lorenzo Lamas using a laser pointer to identify imperfections in contestants’ bodies?
“The Swan”: One colleague of mine suggested Fox ought to do a reunion of contestants from this series, which attempted to make ugly ducklings glamorous via the magic of plastic surgery. While I’d love to see what happened to past participants when the Botox wore off, the continuing success of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” proves there’s a market for makeover shows. And why waste your time watching folks sweat and suffer on “Loser” when medical science can produce far more entertaining results? Bonus points to Mr. Darnell if he can find a way to pull off a celebrity “Swan.”
“Welcome to the Neighborhood”: This show never actually aired. It featured people of varying backgrounds competing to win a house in a conservative, white Texas suburb. Under fire from interest groups—on all sides of the political equation—ABC opted to shelve “Neighborhood.” I saw several episodes, and in addition to being compelling reality TV, its underlying message was one of unity and acceptance. Maybe, in the era of President Obama, the country is ready to tackle tough issues like those seen in “Neighborhood.”
“The Family”: An unscripted comedic take on “Dynasty”—right down to the copycat theme song—this 2003 series set out to prove that blood ties don’t mean a thing when money is on the line. It featured a cast of colorful characters—two words: Dawn Marie—living together on a lavish estate and competing against each other for $1 million. And in a great twist, it turned out that the household help determined who got the cash. The show got hurt by the launch of the Iraq war, and while ABC deserves credit for re-airing it in the summer, the network ought to give “The Family” one more shot.
“The Restaurant”: Long before “Hell’s Kitchen” heated things up for Fox, Mark Burnett gave NBC this gem of an hour. Rocco DiSpirito stressed his way through the opening of a real New York eatery while battling waitstaff divas and his own demons. It was entirely overproduced, but also loads of fun. And while Mr. Burnett’s product placements were annoyingly over-the-top, they worked: I still think of Open by American Express on a regular basis.
“I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”: Great idea, so-so execution. The show—based on a successful British format—was basically a celebrity edition of “Survivor” with elements of “Big Brother” thrown in. B-listers such as Melissa Rivers and Robin Leach alternated between whining about their sparse living arrangements and tackling cheesy competitions. The show aired almost nightly over the course of two weeks, adding a great you-are-there feel—but preventing producers from cooking up the fake dramas so essential to good reality. If ABC doesn’t want to give this show another shot, CBS should just go ahead and finally order up a celebrity edition of “Survivor” for this summer.
“Love Cruise”: Swinging singles sexing it up on a cruise ship? There’s a reason they call Mike Darnell a genius. The real beauty of this show, however, came in the casting. Producers decided to transplant a contestant from a past Fox reality show—Toni Ferrari of “Paradise Hotel”—and make her a part of their program. Ms. Ferrari worked her bust, er, butt off to provide plenty of drama for viewers. Is there a reason she’s not on TV right now?
“Blow Out”: Before Bravo got all “classy” with “Top Chef” and “Project Runway,” the network reveled in the wackiness of celebrity hairstylist Jonathan Antin. Basically “The Restaurant” in a hair salon—complete with execessive product placements— the first season of “Blow Out” was trainwreck TV at its finest. My suggestion for a revival: Jonathan, having fallen on hard times during the economic crisis, is now cutting hair at SuperCuts.
“The Beverly Hillbillies”: OK, so technically this isn’t a revival since CBS never actually aired this nonfiction remake of its classic 1960s sitcom. Special interest groups, concerned CBS was going to mock rural people, killed the show while it was still in development. But now that Republican insiders have made mocking rural folks acceptable (two words: Wasilla hillbillies), CBS should reconsider this idea. Who knows: Maybe Ms. Palin and her brood would be willing to star?
Got any ideas for other reality shows that ought to be brought back from the dead? Leave a comment in the space below.