An American Family (PBS) was actually this country’s first reality TV show. Premiering in January 1973, the Louds were considered the quintessential family of that time (as opposed to Partridges and Brady’s). I remember watching that show and seeing the Louds’ household deteriorate through time.
There were many surprises here; son Lance was the first openly gay man in a family situation on television and eventually Bill and Pat ended up with a divorce. Who’s to say that this would have happened if their lives had not been under this microscope?
I got hooked in the ’90’s on MTV’s Real World through the persistence of my teenage daughters. Only a few years later Mark Burnett’s Survivor was my next foray into reality TV. After making Eco-Challenge British Columbia and Eco-Challenge Argentina he has successfully spawned many years of survivor bliss. Didn’t you just love Rupert? Neilsen claims 25 million viewers agree.
After that, there was no stopping producers who, rather than worry about such trivial things as actors and writers’ strikes, became reality TV junkies. Granted there have been good reality series: Big Brother, the first Apprentice, The Osbournes, but I would hazard a guess that there were even more stinkers.
The Biggest Loser comes immediately to mind. The premise is kind. Take twelve overly overweight people, plop them into a spa/ranch with exercise trainers and healthy food, and let the reality TV games begin. When the contestants first arrive, they are told to strip down to tank tops and shorts and weigh in. How humiliating is this? It is pain for gain and one participant is eliminated weekly.
When down to the final three, they are sent home for 6 months to keep losing (of course their homes now look like miniature Bally’s). One person gets $50,000, the others’ a new life. I suspect this show really does have good intentions and there is even a Biggest Loser club, book, video, etc. to help the rest of us but when I watched this show it seemed almost too depressing to view.
Extreme Makeover is another reality show that means well. Plastic surgery, dental work, etc. are the rewards if you are chosen to appear. The way I see it is that these people didn’t know how bad they looked until a family member or friend suggested that they aspire to be contestants. After letting all of America watch you as you go under the knife and are shown in various stages of healing, you are treated to a party with friends and relatives that look at you as if you are finally a valid member of the “pretty people”.
I could never really stomach the technical aspects of this show and was shocked when a women claimed that her sister committed suicide because she was picked to appear, but they reneged and her resulting depression was just too much for her to handle. While we may never know the truth, once again we verge on heartbreak.
When The Bachelor and Bachelorette were created, all I could think about were the inflated egos the contestants must have to assume it is alright to date a dozen or more women/men at once, kiss them all, and then let them go if they are not up to their “standards”. And what about the women/men who volunteer to be one of the dozen? Are they lonely? Have they no self-worth? What are the odds of herpes?
Even worse was the reality show The Average Joe. These mostly geeky men believed they had a chance to have a real relationship with a model. When about half were eliminated, the producers brought in the “studs”. Guess who the model chose to fly off with into the Bahamian sunset.
Meet My Folks made fiancÃ?Â©s meet potential in-laws. That has to be scary enough in real time; to expose it to all of TV land seems masochistic. Who Wants to Marry My Dad, on the other hand, is sadism at its finest. I would never let my children design my fate for me. I don’t care if they redecorate our house and we all get new clothes.
Fear Factor wins the prize for parading around contestants in their most embarrassing moments. Like tossing bikini clad women in freezing water when they cannot swim or making men with acrophobia walk a tightrope atop two skyscrapers. Even host Joe Rogan admits he would never eat the stuff these overconfident participants swallow down. Watch closely, sometimes they edit a bit too late and you can see the “barf bucket.”
The Amazing Race piqued my interest for about half of the fifth season (but my first). Couples of all types were sent to exotic places and told to do exotic things (camel racing, anyone?), but when it came to whining, it was time to pass the cheese. Do you remember Myrna, that tiny lady who carried a humongous side of beast while her cousin Charla constantly complained about everything? The endless airport antics spelled dull, dull, dull.
One of my favorite short-lived reality shows was My Big Fat Obnoxious FiancÃ?Â©. The premise was simple. Steven Bailey, a rather corpulent character actor, and a pretty and proper Randi Coy were instructed to convince her upper-mid parents that they had met on a dating show and were getting married. If they obtained their support without mentioning it was a con for money, Randi and Steve would have a cool $1 mil to split between them.
Now here’s another catch. Randi didn’t know that Steve was an actor and he seemed like a fairly nice guy at first. Upon meeting her parents, he immediately broke a valuable vase, got drunk as often as possible, and became the king of bad manners. And when the Bailey family met the Coy family, they too were actors and just about as obnoxious as the groom-to-be.
The show ended when the parents/siblings refused to consent and Steve finally confessed that it had all been staged. No money for Randi, humiliation for the Coys, and Steve starts getting acting gigs (yes, that’s him on Gray’s Anatomy).
Needless to say, this show was not renewed. (Note: all her parents would have had to do is watch any Sunday sport and see the actor in a very popular and over exposed Swanson dinner commercial.) Another reality check: The finale of FiancÃ?Â© drew in 21 million viewers. Compare that to the 10.6 million of the Sex and the City finale.
Finally, we come to American Idol. There is something of the Cinderella aspect here that allows small town dreamers to eventually become Kelly Clarksons and win Grammys. However, Clarkson’s not mentioning the show as she accepted her awards appeared quite intentional. Ashamed of our roots, Kelly?
But it is the turmoil that seems to bring in the ratings. Simon Cowell bullies contestants, fights openly with Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, and walks off the set. Keep in mind that in reality shows, there is often deliberate editing for ratings. This means they want you to see this stuff. And what of the contestants who really don’t get it? The disappointment, the cursing; it’s also included in the final cut.
The bottom line is that Neilsen says 28 million of you would rather see Idol than the 15 million who watched this year’s Grammys. Okay, that’s a lot of data for one article, but American television is guided by what viewers like. So if we choose to watch people suffer for money or love, happy producers and station execs are crying with us all the way to the bank.