The Fate of Reality Media: Television and Radio

Howard Stern epitomizes “shock reality” media. His radio/television show was host to some of the most envelope-pushing entertainment ever, including porn stars who regularly stripped bare for the show, endless cursing (which was attempted in vain to be kept under control), simulated orgasms, farting contests, and more bathroom and sexual humor than one would think possible. However, it was the highest-rated radio show in New York City (the country’s top radio market) for ten straight years. Stern was also the first and only disk jockey ever to be number one in New York City and Los Angeles at the same time (Animaux). When “The Howard Stern Show” was pulled from the air waves through pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, listeners left right along with it. Many migrated to satellite radio so they could still hear their favorite DJ. However, few parties ended up happy: Clear Channel, the broadcast group that pulled the plug on Stern, suffered huge ratings losses, as did Stern himself, simply because he moved to an unregulated, pay-by-month service to which a minute portion of his listeners subscribe. The Federal Communications Commission decided that one self-dubbed “shock jock” had gone too far past decency to stay on the air, and listeners (and, later, viewers of Stern’s E! show) were the ones who suffered. As the Federal Communications Commission gradually tightens its reigns on shock reality, the genre will slowly disappear as the public grows bored of no longer being stunned. There is only so far that the media’s ground can break before the “groundbreaking” reality genre is halted by regulatory committees.

Howard Stern’s show is a perfect example of what the entertainment public seeks out today when it comes to reality media: shock. It is also a perfect example of what is likely to happen with reality media in the next few years. As the rules set by the Federal Communications Commission continue to stay firm, the envelope will not be forced any further. As a result, viewers of reality television, who watch the shows mostly to be astonished weekly by what new ground is broken, will quickly grow bored of seeing the same drinking, sex, and fighting on television. Shock reality media will be little more than a memory.

How did the progress from simple reality television shows with minor tensions that seemed to shock audiences and semi-shocking radio station antics to a nation that endlessly pushes the limits of what is allowed in the media? Stern himself is a great example. According to his movie “Private Parts,” Stern started out simply taunting on the air the radio stations he worked for (allegedly because of the stringent rules they tried to place on him) and honestly discussing generally private aspects of his real life. His blunt honesty appealed to his truth-starved audience, and the ratings began to multiply. Only after a few years – and giant success as a DJ – did Stern actually start to bring strippers, attractive lesbians, and other shocking entertainers into the studio. As ratings grew, the studios he worked for became slightly more tolerant of, if not necessarily approving of, Stern’s on-the-air antics. Krysten Crawford of CNN.com reports, “As Clear Channel and Infinity have both been reminded his year, wherever Stern goes the ratings quickly follow. “If someone had come along and instantly maintained the ratings that Howard Stern had, that would have been looked at as the second coming of Christ,’ joked (Michael) Harrison (publisher of a popular radio talk show magazine).” Unfortunately for the show, however, it reached its limit in late 2004 when the Federal Communications Commission assigned enormous fines to Clear Channel and Infinity stations that carried “The Howard Stern Show” for Stern’s numerous regulation violations. In light of the controversy, ratings soared for “The Howard Stern Show.” However, the show was soon forced off the regular airwaves and into the oblivion that is Sirius Satellite Radio, where the sheer number of subscribers is inevitably less than Stern’s fan base. The Federal Communications Commission’s regulations produced a slow death for a show that could push the envelope no further. Howard Stern and the group, even today, have a strained relationship (during the controversy, Stern even contacted Michael Powell, a leader of the Federal Communications Commission, and taunted him live on the air).

Another example of a show that pushes the limits of commonly-accepted decency is MTV’s “The Real World.” MTV.com states that “The Real World,” one of the world’s first reality television shows, first began airing in 1992, based in New York City. On the first season of the show, the main points of contention for the general viewing public were the racial tensions on the show and the portrayal of an Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½out’ homosexual male in a serious relationship. At the time, this was considered risquÃ?© and cutting-edge, shocking viewers and garnering ratings larger than any reality show had previously seen. Now there are shows such as The Learning Channel’s “Gay Weddings” that track gay couples’ journeys from the engagement to the altar. This is evidence that, in a mere decade or so, the shock value of reality television has had to increase along with its audience’s shock level. Chronicling “The Real World” continues to prove this season after season. In season two (Los Angeles), the biggest drama on the show was the fact that one cast member caused so many problems with his housemates that he was asked to leave. Such a controversy now would hardly even qualify as viewable, but at the time, viewers were shocked and glued to the screen as they watched the alleged drama unfold. In season three (San Fransisco), a cast member was yet again kicked out of the house, but this time there was an added level of shock value to the show: the only gay cast member had HIV/AIDS. This season broke ground as being the first (and “The Real World” was the first reality show in history) to portray such a character. One of the other cast members gained fame after Pedro (the HIV/AIDS infected member) died in 1994 and the other cast member wrote a critically acclaimed book called Pedro and Me that discussed his experience with Pedro (MTV.com).

As the seasons of the show progressed, so did the drama and shock of the show. By season eight (Hawaii), alcoholism was a major issue and one of the cast members was given the ultimatum of entering a rehabilitation program or leaving the house. Such issues had not been shown yet on reality television, and the alcoholic cast member gained huge notoriety and received endless support from faithful viewers of the show. While alcohol was frequently consumed by all casts from the beginning of “The Real World,” the show did not address the issue of its excess until season eight. This hooked many viewers to the show who constantly wondered what trouble Ruthie (the alcoholic) would be involved in next and how the rest of the cast would deal with it. By the time season twelve (Las Vegas) aired, the MTV audience was jaded with the generally life-altering issues that “Real World” casts faced. They were hungry for sex and drama, and the viewers came in droves when they were provided with just that. The excess of alcohol reached new heights as the city of Las Vegas provided the appropriate backdrop for cast members jumping in and out of one another’s beds. Full of drama, sex, and drinking, season twelve broke ground and was one of the most popular, spawning still-popular B-list celebrities such as “Trishelle” (who was involved in one of the several cast member relationships), who continues to find steady work on MTV and in Playboy magazine today. Approaching the current season, season fourteen (San Diego) was one of the most controversial, which stands to reason, as the audience grew more restless for vulgarity and the show followed suit. One of the cast members cut herself – something that proved quite trying for every member of the house – several roommates became involved in relationships with each other, and the police confronted the cast more than once. The show certainly came a long way from simply confronting racial tension (which no longer appears to exist on the show) and addressing gay relationships to discussing self-mutilation and police altercations.

That the ratings for “The Real World” have progressed immensely from its first season is an understatement. According to Wikipedia.com, “The Real World” didn’t gain widespread notoriety until “The Real World: San Francisco”, its third season, aired in 1994. âÂ?¦ As the San Francisco season continued to grow in popularity, it was clear that the “reality” television format was one that could bring considerable ratings to a network.” The show also would not have stayed on the air for eighteen seasons (and still going strong) had the ratings dropped over the years. One question that must be asked of this show, however, is Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½How much further can it be pushed?’ Already, the alleged plotlines have begun to grow stale: the police altercations are indeed more frequent and the alcohol consumed is indeed more copious, but in the past, ratings have been produced not be excess but by change. Unfortunately for MTV, the Federal Communications Commission is unlikely to allow swearing or nudity to enter the general population’s television sets, and there is only so much MTV can do with the current regulations. As viewers begin to see the same show repeating itself with simply different people cycling in and out of various houses, they will stop watching. At that point, MTV will have a tough decision to make. It may even spell the end for much of reality television (“The Real World” was the first successful reality show; is it likely to be the last?). The end is possibly nearer than some may think for this long-shown series, and that is due in great part to the Federal Communications Commission’s inflexibility regarding current rules and regulations.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission’s major regulations plaguing media networks are the “Seven Dirty Words” (Wikipedia) and nudity restrictions. There appears to be a precedent set in which the regulations will not loosen any time soon. According to ABC.com, at the Super Bowl in 2004, Janet Jackson exposed her right breast live on the air to millions of viewers. The network was fined by the Federal Communications Commission for the allegedly inadvertent flash of skin and a mandatory “buffer time” for all live broadcasts was created. If anything, the regulations on television stations are becoming more, not less, forceful. This is hurting reality shows that attract viewers (and, in turn, money) by shocking them.

Shows like Fox’s “The Swan,” ABC’s “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and VH1’s “Strip Search” recently shocked viewers by taking a different approach. “The Swan” showed graphic plastic surgery transformations and rewarded participants with an opportunity to participate in a beauty pageant, “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” broke ground by showing obvious gold-diggers blindly vying to marry a rich man, and “Strip Search” sought out attractive men who competed for slots in a new Las Vegas stripping group. However, there are limitations to the imagination as well. With only so much nudity and swearing allowed – not to mention controversial content in general -reality T.V. is currently suffering when it comes to new shows. There are few shows today with truly unique concepts; most build on another idea, often from a different network. This is likely to spell boredom and channel-changing for the bulk of the audience. ABC’s “Supernanny” was a piggy-back idea spawned from the popular Fox show “Nanny 911” and therefore suffered in the ratings. TLC’s “Trading Spaces” spawned many copycat shows that, in almost every circumstance, resulted in cancellation or abysmal ratings. These shows that ride on the coattails of others’ successes tend to be doomed to failure, and it is only a matter of time until that is all we have left. Networks are scrambling for new ideas and finding that one of the only alternatives is rejecting shows of the reality genre altogether.

Some other possibilities that may not cause the dissolution of reality media are the creation of more wholesome reality shows, the Federal Communications Commission’s loosening of regulations, and the blending of reality shows with those of other genres in order to survive. The idea that reality television could become more wholesome in an effort to stay on the air is unlikely. It is evident that viewers in the past have usually watched reality television for shock value: these shows have received the highest ratings, and those that did not shock did not survive. Viewers are not likely to change their opinions about the genre from those that were held a mere two years ago: experiments like MTV’s “Trippin’ with Cameron Diaz,” a show that chronicled the environmental adventures of a popular starlet (MTV Press Release), have proved disastrous and demonstrate the negative result of wholesome reality. They are a good indicator of current viewer biases. Diaz herself is a much larger celebrity than many famous people with successful reality shows, but even fame did not save the star’s controversy-lacking reality adventure. Shows like Bravo’s “Being Bobby Brown” and MTV’s “The Osbournes” began with lesser-known celebrities but proved hugely successful mainly because of their shock value. These shows would probably have immediately been cancelled had they been pure, wholesome entertainment because viewers simply would not have been interested enough to tune in.

Another possibility that may allow reality media to survive is if the Federal Communications Commission loosens its regulations. Such a change does not look probable, considering that the Commission has, for many years, in fact been tightening restrictions on shows that try to push the envelope. The aforementioned Howard Stern and Janet Jackson cases are great examples of this. Howard Stern, despite his amazing listener ratings, was forced off the air because he would not comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations. Janet Jackson’s case resulted in station fines and extra rules for live broadcasts. The Federal Communications Commission holds no benefit in successful reality shows- in fact, if it loosens regulations, it could receive backlash from the far right of society (a group that generally rallies around the idea that current media is too unregulated as it is). Therefore, tightening restrictions on reality media seems far more likely in the near future than the easing of current rules.

A third and final possible opposition to the demise of the reality genre is that the genre will blend with genres in order to survive. While it is a viable alternative to immediate cancellation, viewers in the past have not supported such moves in terms of blending genres. While reality shows that were also styled as sitcoms like MTV’s “The Osbournes” found amazing success for three seasons, this was due more to shock value (which itself pushed the Federal Communications Commission’s seven dirty word regulations) than to the blending of the genres. Similar shows that offered less of a shock value, like E!’s “The Anna Nicole Show,” proved less successful. Viewers were annoyed by this show and grew tired of being “set up” by circumstances that were obviously unreal, so the show was cancelled due to poor ratings. The blending of genres may have initially seemed like a good idea (such a show was even proposed to MTV and seriously considered before the network decided to try airing the version of “The Real World” that we know today). However, it has grown increasingly evident that viewers do not like to be “faked out” or tricked. Reality media is viewed because it is real and shocking. Blending genres is unlikely to have the desired effect (reality media survival), as viewers who want sitcoms or dramas will watch those, not pseudo-reality shows that are often confusing and complicated, as well as seeming fake. In the past, semi-sitcoms or dramas have not been the purpose of reality television- reality is more of a voyeuristic pleasure that makes viewers tune in to either identify with true, “real” characters or be shocked at the horrible things they do.

As the Federal Communications Commission continues to enforce its current regulations, reality media as we know it will disappear almost entirely. As it stands now, it is important that viewers and listeners enjoy the shock while they can, because soon enough there will be nothing left with which to shock us. Until the government loosens its reigns on the media, shock reality is unlikely to survive into the next decade. Howard Stern and Janet Jackson have already been a part of some of the effects that the Federal Communications Commission has had, and will continue to have, on reality media, and it does not appear to be easing in the near future. Reality media was doomed to failure from its outset because it was created in an effort to shock its audience, and such a scheme can only be taken so far. Though this may spell the end of reality television, other genres will replace it: perhaps genres that are not designed to shock or appall and hold closely to the Federal Communications Commission’s rules. Until then, however, it is important to say goodbye to the short-lived media craze that was reality as television networks and radio stations seek out the next big thing.

Works Cited

Crawford, Krysten, “Life Without Stern Isn’t Looking Pretty.” 27 January 2005. 22 July 2005. .

MTV Press Release, “Cameron Diaz Gets Her Own Reality Show.” 14 January 2005. 23 July 2005. < http://movies.about.com/od/diazcameron/a/cameron011405.htm>

NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World: Season One.” 2005. 21 July 2005. .

NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World: Season Two.” 2005. 21 July 2005.

NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World: Season Three.” 2005. 21 July 2005.
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NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World: Season Eight.” 2005. 21 July 2005.
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NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World: Season Twelve.” 2005. 21 July 2005.
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NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World: Season Fourteen.” 2005. 21 July 2005.
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NO AUTHOR LISTED, “Howard Stern Show Ratings.” 8 April 2005. 22 July 2005.

NO AUTHOR LISTED, “The Real World.” 21 July 2005. 22 July 2005.

NO AUTHOR LISTED, “Seven Dirty Words.” 15 July 2005. 22 July 2005.

P, A.F., “Janet Jackson Superbowl Flash Sparks Outrage.” 3 February 2004. 22 July 2005.

Private Parts. Dir. Betty Thomas. Perf. Howard Stern. 1997. Videocassette. Paramount 1997.

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