In the early years of reality TV, traditional TV marketers placed a discounted value on non-scripted programming -- even when scripted and non-scripted shows grabbed the exact same ratings.
Now, there are more stable, better-quality reality programs with consistent year-in, year-out track records: "Amazing Race," "Top Chef," "Project Runway," "Survivor," "America's Next Top Model," to name a few.
But along with the growing number of shows comes more real-life incidents with reality TV associations -- stuff that is threatening to dramatically shrink the list of marketers TV ad sellers can target for specific shows.
Michaele and Tareq Salahi add to this problem. They're the Washington, D.C. couple who seem to have tried everything to become cast members of an upcoming spinoff of the Bravo franchise -- "The Real Housewives of D.C." But crashing a state dinner at the White House may be going too far.
Jon and Kate Gosselin gained fame through a TLC show about marriage with their eight children -- but that effort evolved into a tabloid-esque TV program many advertisers didn't sign up for.
Ryan Jenkins was a contestant on two VH1 shows who allegedly killed his ex-wife in August, stuffed her mutilated body in a suitcase and later hanged himself. How would you like to be the sponsor of those VH1 efforts?
Richard and Mayumi Heene created a faux script about their six-year-old being taken away in a balloon. Veterans of ABC's "Wife Swap," the Heenes were looking for more TV deals -- even if they broke the law.
The increased desperation of people to be on TV comes at the same time that TV ratings are falling. Perhaps the theory of TV as a perishable commodity is filtering down to the masses.
Despite the risks, few seem to see the downside. While the Heenes were in the midst of their court proceedings, they were scheduling meetings with media folk in New York City!
Bright marketing executives believe if the buzz is still active, surely people will watch. Who wouldn't want to see the Salahis getting grilled by some D.C. socialite about their alleged actions?
Cast the Salahis and Heenes as evil characters in some storylines? Oh, yeah. They'll be signed up as long as U.S. viewers will watch.
But what these devil-may-care contestants don't realize is that many TV advertisers still have old beliefs about a price discount for reality shows. Sleazy real-life characters add to that perception of cheapness.
Bob DeBitetto, general manager of A&E, has the right feel for this: "We're all in the business of selling ads. This can have a chilling impact on pricing. You don't want an entire genre to be weighed down because there are these unfortunate examples."