Why Reality TV Stinks and How to Fix It
I usually call it documentary-style TV because ‘reality tv’ can leave such a bad taste in peoples mouths. And it shouldn’t. There isn’t anything wrong with reality as a format.
Sure, there is a good deal of trashy TV in reality, but that’s not the fault of the format; there is some level of trash in every format that exists. And hell, science and nature shows fall into doc-style TV- the only difference between those and other reality programming is that they’re about concepts and wildlife rather than people.
But that’s not to say there isn’t anything wrong with reality as it exists today. No, there are some things severely broken in the world of reality. The crazy thing is, it wouldn’t be all that hard to fix and you could do it without raising those low costs that networks love. But before we get to all that, let’s start with:
Forcing the Story Into a Neat Narrative
Producers love formulas. If they always have A and always add it to B, they always get C. And if C performs a certain way they can be confident in continuing to deliver C. But stories don’t always want to be C. That’s why you get an abundance of reality TV that plays like round pegs being forced into square holes.
It results in manufactured situations, overly manipulated footage, and outright fabrications, all making the genre title of ‘reality’ bitterly ironic. The problem isn’t even solely viewers’ frustration with the clearly contrived narratives, but also that the underlying story is typically far more interesting than the processed version.
The Canned Lines
The show “Tanked!” has a concept that turned out to be surprisingly interesting. It follows a company that makes gigantic and artistically impressive custom aquariums- not something I would have guessed would be worth watching, but is strangely compelling. Yet the constant canned lines, usually bad puns or other stupid jokes delivered by people with no particular comedic inclination, make the show nearly unwatchable. It’s like someone had a viable concept for a show, easy to make and ready to go, and they said “You know what this is missing? Bad puns being poorly delivered.”
But “Tanked!” is hardly alone. In many, probably even most reality shows, the people on screen are being fed lines and often even entire scenes. It creates moments that aren’t reality at all, but fiction with extremely bad actors.
The Focus on Drama
In “The Bachelor” sure, I get it. That’s why people watch. To see women drink too much and then go insane on each other. But are people really watching “Hell’s Kitchen” to see how red Gordon Ramsey’s face can get?
The false premise that the audience loves interpersonal conflict above everything is so ingrained in producers that you can practically hear them moaning in ecstasy behind the camera every time someone starts an argument with a friend.
Start treating reality TV like short documentaries. I’m not talking about shows like “Real Housewives of Whereverthehell”, there is no reason to fix a show that is already serving its purpose. But for shows that are actually about something, producers need only loosen the reigns a bit to make the content far more palatable for the average viewer.
For shows with variance in structure, such as “Deadliest Catch”, “Strange Sex”, and “My Cat From Hell”, it would require a new approach. Like a documentary, capture what happens and construct a narrative from that. This makes executives and producers very nervous because they can’t guarantee the same product every episode. But viewers will prefer the occasional subtle story to the ham handed, manufactured narrative they’re used to. And as someone who worked in reality for years, I’d much rather face the challenge of making a quiet story more openly compelling than trying to hammer what could have been a unique and interesting story into the mold provided.
For competition shows like “Hell’s Kitchen”, “The Amazing Race”, and “Ink Master” or easily structured shows like “Tanked!”, “Pawn Stars”, and “Cake Boss”, they’re already 90% of the way there. By the very nature of the content, they tell a similar narrative each time; the details and the results might be different, but the premise is almost identical in each episode or segment. The only thing that needs to change is the attitude. Instead of force feeding contestants and interviewees lines and semi-scripted scenes, give people the opportunity to be authentic. It opens up the opportunity to capture genuine human experiences and I promise no one is going to miss the bad jokes in that scripted button.
If you need evidence that this is a better format, just look at the souring popularity of content like “This American Life” and “Serial” or the emergence of shows like “First Dates”. It’s akin to the situation with the film “Inception”. Hollywood hates that Inception did well because it was an original with no proof of concept. If originals start coming back, they’ll have to judge film pitches based on creative merit and that’s much harder than looking up comic book sales numbers. TV execs are at least as risk averse. Not because they hate creativity, but because when they commit to funding a project they want an indication of how well it will work. But sometimes you have to be bold. It’s the only way you’re going to do great things. And if you aren’t prepared to be bold, I’m sure Netflix will be.