Survivor and American Idol are cultural phenomena. Joe Millionaire not only made Evan Marriott a pile of money, but it made Fox and its advertisers pretty rich too. One of the bright spots on ABC's schedule is The Bachelor/The Bachelorette. But those successes obscure a basic fact of reality programming.
"For every Joe Millionaire and Survivor, there are plenty of dogs out there," notes Steve Kalb, VP/director of broadcast media at Boston-based Mullen. Consider I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, All-American Girl or Married by America?
And it's not just ratings. Advertisers are concerned about content.
"Advertisers will continue to go into reality programming, but it's a quality issue ... Top advertisers don't want to associate with low-level content," said Jes Santoro, VP of integrated media at Earthquake Media in New York and a former broadcast buyer. That's no problem with shows like Survivor and American Idol, which have been accepted with content that's not unlike anything else that's there.
But shows like Am I Hot? or Fear Factor, that's another story. Those shows might attract a lot of 18-34s and 18-49s. But it makes for an inefficient primetime buy or a buy for advertisers that aren't as interested in family-friendly programming.
"People will consume that media but it's where the audience will not drive up the price ... It's efficiency where you don't care about content," said Santoro.
Kalb said some advertisers are more receptive to reality than others. But many are on the sidelines, trying to see what will shake out in the industry. "Low-cumes like Fear Factor, not a lot of clients say they gotta be on it," he said. Many advertisers don't mind an unscripted show with perceived quality like Survivor on the schedule or even Joe Millionaire, depending on the demographics. The others, well, that's another story. Advertisers know what they're buying when they run spots in scripted shows and news magazines. That means that shows like Law & Order, CSI and The West Wing get a higher CPM than Fear Factor.
"Clients are not going to be saying, 'Wow, that's great' [when they see reality programming on the schedule]. They like the Law & Orders, The West Wings. The reality shows, I don't think anyone gets really excited about," Kalb said.
Richard Dubin, a former TV writer/director/producer and now a professor of TV/film at Syracuse University, agrees.
"If you're a quality advertiser ... are you going to be on Fear Factor," he asks.
Dubin doesn't think that scripted television holds the quality high ground, saying that there have been shows that were "just as debasing as anything they're doing in reality television." But he points out that there's another factor at work here: A culture of meanness where every ounce of cellulite on a woman's leg is criticized, people behave badly toward one another or the consumption of slugs or other stomach-turners.
American Idol isn't new. It's the descendant of programs like Star Search in the 1980s and Talent Scout in the 1950s, and these shows go back to the Vaudeville days of the early 1900s. "The only difference between American Idol and the long history of shows that led up to it is there is a profound and glaring streak of meanness that somehow people are finding entertaining. And that's what concerns me the most on a human level," Dubin said.
"There's a lack of kindness and inhumanity that's put forward as entertainment. I don't think that's useful to us as a culture. When we keep selling ourselves out to sell one or another product, we're ultimately going to pay a big price. There needs to be a balance between the cultural messages and the commercial intent," Dubin said.
He said that these shows might be unscripted but that doesn't mean they don't follow a script, or at least a producers' desire to find conflict and drama. There's a casting director to find real people to give performances. He noted that the shows still employ writers, according to the credits.
"It is not any more real than anything else we see on TV in terms of it being a construction. It is written, it is just not scripted ... These people aren't writing, they're telling stories. They're just not scripting in advance," Dubin said.
Why all the interest in reality programming? "It's awful tempting in the long run because these shows can be turned around quickly. It's very appealing to programming executives who are notoriously risk-adverse," Dubin said. He said programming executives can say they got ratings for a show that didn't come with the price tag of a lot of scripted shows.
"It's a much less scary thing from their point of view but I don't think they're looking at the long run," Dubin said. He said it's still to be seen how the unscripted programming will play out in a business model. "Do they have any life in these shows? The business was always about getting syndication rights," he said. The networks have changed and they're thinking quarter-to-quarter and not much beyond that, he said.
Salaam Coleman Smith, VP/programming at the E! cable channel believes that unscripted programming isn't going away. "To me, reality programming is like blue jeans. The style of the blue jeans or the cut of blue jeans will change but as a genre is here to stay," Coleman Smith said. She doesn't think it's going to kill scripted programming or force severe changes; she thinks there will soon be more of a balance between scripted and reality programming on TV schedules.
"They're both about compelling people and compelling stories. Given they have that in common, I think both genres are poised to continue to survive," Coleman Smith said.