After Millionaire, CBS followed by grabbing up and retooling the Dutch show Big Brother, and then the Swedish program Survivor. Then, in the final hour, perhaps to save face after the failed debacle of the XFL, NBC — under the new direction of TV wunderkind Jeff Zucker — stepped in with grosser, flashier, realer programming. In the past year, the network — which Salon.com’s Joyce Millman dubbed " Nothing But Cruelty " — has raced to compete, offering reality shows including Fear Factor and Spy TV.
The predominant theory about the lure of reality TV can be summed up in one word: voyeurism. The problem is, as with anything addictive — sugar, cigarettes, drugs — it’s possible to have too much of a good (or, in this case, popular) thing. The tide already seems to be turning. Three weeks after Tom Shales’s maudlin elegy for dramas and sit-coms, Nielson spit out a whole new set of ratings showing that prime time was losing viewers across the board. Just two weeks later, noted The Hollywood Reporter, the spoils for all shows, including reality TV, were " meager. " UPN’s flop of a reality-TV show, Manhunt, couldn’t even win a respectable number of viewers with a real scandal, when a contestant accused producers of rigging the show’s final result and reshooting footage, and filed a complaint with the FCC. Must-see TV? More like who-cares TV.
Viewers weeping into their TV dinners can blame it on the Web. In many ways, reality is the necessary new niche for television in the wake of the Internet. Before the dot-com days, television provided an immediacy that countered film’s heavily edited, stylized form. But with its faster headlines, news reports, and up-to-the-minute services, the Net elbowed in on TV’s territory, and the tube was forced to redefine itself. So-called reality television — which is in fact a heavily edited, pseudo-documentary format — is the result.
The genre’s whole premise is more, more, more. And not surprisingly, what once seemed novel — the delivery of titillating and taboo inside dope — has degenerated. It’s like watching someone do a striptease: it starts out sexy, but soon you become as blasé as a gynecologist. Yeah, she’s naked. So what?
Douglas Rushkoff believes that all the behind-the-scenes access given to viewers of shows like Big Brother, The Real World, and Temptation Island — the bathroom cam, the bedroom cam, the watch-me-floss cam — has led the genre to its death cam.
Issue Date: September 6 - 13, 2001