The Rise of “Reality”: Television Economics

From its advent, television often was and has continued to be considered a ‘lesser medium’ by, well, generally film snobs. Though this stigma exists, television has proven itself many times over with shows that are not only wildly successful, but could undoubtedly be considered complex works of art, plenty worthy of the prestige retained by the film industry (Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development, Twin Peaks, to name a few). In the face of all this success, the stigma of television certainly does not lie in its popularity. The blemish that seems to mar the face of modern television truly seems to be so-called “reality” programming. Despite the ever-increasing number of non-scripted series that are appearing on network television, to many, the genre has a less than favorable reputation. Reality television is often associated with low production value and shallow, poorly conceived plots. It has also received criticism for the choice of the word “reality” when so many shows that claim to be so are obviously constructed.

An American Family – the Loud Family

Reality programming comes in a variety of forms. It is termed reality television because the genre relies on unscripted situations and primarily non-actors. The plot of the show is then constructed during the editing process. In 1973, the documentary miniseries An American Family aired. An American Family followed the lives of the Louds, an upper middles class family living in Santa Barbara, California. The vérité series captured the dissolve of Bill and Pat Louds marriage and the eldest son, Lance, come out as gay. He is widely credited as the first openly gay character on television. An American Family was controversial and groundbreaking. It was also the first time American audiences saw something close to resembling today’s reality television. The series, which inspired The Real World, was somewhat revived in 2003, with the broadcast of Lance Loud!: A Death in an American Family. This series followed the family once again, focusing on Lance who was now 50, had suffered from 20 years of crystal meth addiction, and was HIV positive.

The Swan

The 2000s saw a massive burst in reality programming. Now, most Americans can name quite a few reality shows just off the top of their head (i.e., American Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, Laguna Beach, Cops, The Amazing Race, etc.). The genre has not just continued to survive since then, but has been thriving. Being panned by critics has certainly not deterred networks from produced realty programming. The reason behind this increase is not due solely to the genre’s popularity amongst the populace. There are a variety of economic reasons Network execs continue to push terrible shows like The Swan (a cosmetic surgery-fueled beauty pageant) and The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills (five incredibly wealthy 20 year-olds are followed in order to share their worldly insights).

The cast of Duck Dynasty

During the 1980s, the traditional television formula began to transform. The industry was in a time of tremendous reconstruction. The advent of VHS tape and the VCR allowed viewers to watch their favorite shows at any time they chose and to fast-forward through advertisements. Consequently, the cost of commercial slots went down much to the chagrin of network leaders. In order to counteract these losses, networks sought less expensive means of entertaining the masses. Since the 1980s, the Internet has risen in popularity and DVR services are used in many households, as are television-streaming sites like Netflix. The boom of reality series in the 2000 is a direct result of these factors. Networks relied on the relatively inexpensive genre to fill the gaps in their programming schedule. While shows like Lost and Friends draw big audiences, they are costly to make. Lost was special effect and stunt intensive. Friends, largely because of its success, racked up hefty actor payrolls. Whereas a show like Duck Dynasty is be filmed with cheaper cameras, does not rely on big-name actors, has no special effects, and requires no sets to built. Reality television is exactly the kind of easy-profit programming network execs dream of. Lucky for them, the American populace is eager to soak up this television format. The success of so many reality shows ensures that this trend is here to stay.

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