Reality Television: The Business of Mediating (Extra)Ordinary Life

Valerie Palmer-Mehta & Alina Haliliuc. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

It is commonplace to assert that television exists to bring audiences to advertising. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two, as popular programming produces a higher level of engagement with advertising, while poor television content negatively affects an audience’s perception of ads.1 Consequently, both television and advertising executives closely monitor ratings information and actively try to predict and capitalize on growing trends within the industry. Although some argue that demography is a poor predictor of behavior, this has not deterred networks and commercial leaders from attempting to reach the most sought after demographic today, 18 to 49 year olds. Currently one of the most successful ways to connect with this age group is through reality television.

Once considered revolutionary, reality television has become a staple in television programming. Although the inception of the medium may be traced back to 1948 with the introduction of Allen Funt’s hidden camera show Candid Camera, and it achieved contemporaneous esteem in the late 1980s and early 1990s with shows such as Cops, America’s Most Wanted, and Real World, the recent upsurge in reality television was prompted by the hit CBS television show Survivor: Borneo (2000). The program amassed 27 million viewers, and its last three episodes garnered $50 million in advertising revenue. Without heavy-hitting stars or unionized writers to remunerate, CBS enjoyed a financial windfall at a time of economic difficulty in the industry and served as a model for other networks to emulate. The industry has since successfully capitalized off of spinning generic conventions in new ways, of which Annette Hill states, “Reality programming is an extraordinary success story, an example of television’s ability to cannibalize itself in order to survive in a commercially uncertain media environment.”

Reality television is now traditional fare on both broadcast and subscription networks, and it regularly traverses international borders. For example, a program such as Big Brother, developed for Dutch television, has been licensed in 18 countries and is a hit in the United States and Britain. The hit British reality show Pop Idol was translated into American Idol, which has been a ratings juggernaut in the United States. The content of reality television vacillates between information and entertainment as unscripted nonstars are filmed in various contexts, such as shows involving eliminations (e.g., Survivor, Flavor of Love, Dancing with the Stars, The Apprentice, American Idol, So You Want to be a Superhero), makeovers (e.g., The Swan, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Pickup Artist, Beauty and the Geek, Dr. 90210), and docu-soaps (e.g., Real World, Miami Ink, American Chopper, Sunset Tan). Ironically, the success of reality television shows featuring nonstars spurred the creation of reality programming starring celebrities, referred to as celebreality. The celebrities featured, however, are typically what one would refer to as C-list; that is, those whose fame has faded or those who are seeking to boost a fledgling career. No station capitalized on this trend as much as VH1, which has significantly increased its viewership with its celebreality offerings.

Reality television has proven to be a force in the television industry. But how long can this genre maintain its position in the market? What does the future hold for reality television? In order to make sense of what lies ahead, the contemporary state of reality television must be assessed. In what follows, we provide an overview of the most pervasive subgenres of reality programming: elimination shows, makeover shows, docu-soaps, and celebreality shows. We address their form and content, ratings information, and revenue generating capacity to provide a foundation for discussing the future of the genre.

Elimination Shows

The elimination show is one of the most persistent and provocative forms of reality programming, from Big Brother to The Pickup Artist to America’s Next Top Model. Each program has its own unique niche, but the focus is on defeating one’s competitors and surviving stress inducing environments in order to win the competition. Often, significant prizes are attached to triumphing over one’s competitors. A winner of America’s Next Top Model, for example, receives a modeling contract and the opportunity to be featured in a nationally circulated magazine or advertisement. The elimination shows that have had the broadest impact on the subgenre to date in the United States are Survivor and American Idol. Both programs generated substantial ratings and advertising revenues and have served as major assets to their respective networks.

The unexpected breakout success of the first season of Survivor (Survivor: Borneo) was the rock that started the avalanche of reality programming in the United States. As Bob Francis states, “Survivor demonstrated the broadcast networks were still alive, kicking, and drawing audiences. And it generated something CBS hadn’t seen in some time: buzz.”

The first season of Survivor was scheduled to air during the summer months (May-August 2000) when scripted television was running repeats. However, after the program proved successful, its air time was moved more closely to the time frame of the traditional television season, which runs from September to April, with one exception: a new Survivor season is introduced each fall (September) and winter (January), resulting in the production of two seasons of Survivor per one season of traditional programming. In its fifteenth season, running from September to December 2007, Survivor: China looked similar to other Survivor seasons produced by reality television guru Mark Burnett. Sixteen cast members from different walks of life are dropped into an undeveloped and isolated location where they must forage for food and build shelters in order to “survive” the elements and each other in hopes of winning $1 million in prize money. They are given challenges through which they may achieve immunity from elimination at the tribal council, at which time cast mates vote each other off until two people are remaining. A final vote determines the winner of the competition. Rather than being a test of leadership, strength, or character, those who are deemed the most viable are often voted off quickly because they are seen to pose the greatest threat to winning. Cast mates essentially remain on the program based on their abilities to scheme and make alliances; this approach gave birth to the Survivor mantra, “Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.” This “survival of the cunning” perspective, or what some have called “Machiavellian backstabbing,” provides the program with the drama necessary to give force to the competition narrative and draws viewers in droves.

The program was, from the start, a marketing experiment. According to Anne O’Grady, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Events for CBS, “we were more involved in Survivor than any other show launched at the network. It was a marketing project from the beginning.” Mark Burnett, executive producer and co-owner of the show with CBS, took an active role in pitching the show to nine sponsors before the show aired and earned a portion of the advertising revenue, establishing a new business model for television. Marketing strategies included enticing advertisers with the prospect of product and logo placement in on-air promotions, a desirable option in a cluttered media environment where the traditional commercial can be easily turned off. For example, Dr. Scholl’s insoles were the prize of one challenge, and first-season winner Richard Hatch was seen driving away in the newly launched Pontiac Aztek. Early advertisers were paid off for their faith in the potential of the program. Buzz for the first season was so great that the two-hour season finale was the eleventh most-watched network broadcast of all time, and new advertisers were asked for as much as $600,000 for a 30-second spot. The ratings eclipsed every show on television that year except for the Superbowl. In 2006, the program’s top 50 sponsors spent $80.7 million in advertising. However, the fifteenth season of the program is seeing a decline in audience and advertising interest, although it continues to generate impressive ratings. The premiere of Survivor: China experienced a 25 percent decrease in audience from the thirteenth season (Cook Island, 2006) and a 15 percent decline from the fourteenth season (Fiji, February 2007), making it the weakest premiere in the show’s history. Yet, it still garnered over 15 million viewers and was the highest rated program of the evening, an amazing feat for a program in its fifteenth season.

Similar to Survivor, American Idol has been enormously successful with U.S. audiences. And, like Survivor, audiences have started to show signs of fatigue with the series even as it continues to outperform competing programming. The show features everyday Americans trying out for a spot on the show using their singing ability and star quality. They are subjected to the verbal barbs of judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell, which is perhaps the most interest-generating portion of the show. Unlike Survivor, this time it is viewers who get to decide who will remain on the program through a vote they cast via phone or text messaging after the judges have made the initial cuts. Those who win the competition earn a recording contract, but a popular runner-up may also be presented with a contract from a record label unaffiliated with the show. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, winners of season one and season four respectively, have achieved significant commercial success and artistic recognition, winning Grammy, Billboard, and American Music Awards and selling millions of records.

Debuting in the summer of 2002, the initial success of American Idol was attributed to its positioning in the off-season, as other networks ran repeats of their standard programming. When the ratings of the second season exceeded the first during the regular season schedule, the television industry was rocked. The second season finale on May 21, 2003, drew over 34 million viewers. Industry insiders predicted the program could not retain its popularity over the seasons, but the ratings continued to increase, peaking with the fifth season finale, which on May 24, 2006, drew over 36 million viewers and 63 million votes, the largest in the show’s history.

The program runs in a nontraditional format, taking up several hours on multiple nights during the week while maintaining its juggernaut ratings. As a result of its unprecedented popularity, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker has stated, “ ‘Idol’ is the most impactful show in television history.” In terms of revenue, this assertion is supported. Mike Brunker reports that the show’s franchise is valued at $2.5 billion, with the program earning $500 million a year in television advertising. Product placement is a central component of the program’s advertising business. On July 17, 2006, Mediaweek reported that the program featured 3,052 occurrences of product placement, which is three times as many placements as the second leading show with regards to such placement, NBC’s The Biggest Loser.  Less than a year later, Nielsen Media Research reported that product placement on the show increased to 4,086 spots. While the sixth season witnessed a decline in ratings, the show is not likely to go away in a hurry; in its decline it still drew over 30 million viewers. Additionally, the program has been renewed up to and including a ninth season.

The popularity of the Survivor and American Idol series was a surprise to most in the television industry, even their sponsoring networks. These and other similar programs have achieved success in part through casting interesting, accessible characters that are able to cultivate a sense of intimacy with audiences. Regarding the centrality of casting to reality programming, Ron Simon states, “casting is the most crucial element in the success of a reality series. In fact, reality producers refer to their cast as characters, not real people.” Producers go to great lengths to select just the right assortment of people. Failure to do so can result in declining ratings. Indeed, some have argued that the decline in American Idol‘s ratings in the sixth season was the result of a stale, lackluster cast. In addition to selecting captivating cast members to whom audience members can relate, intimacy with audiences is cultivated through self-disclosure in the form of the “confessional,” where cast members are asked to share how they are feeling about recent events on the program. Audience members become further involved in the program and begin to root for their favorite character when emotion is promoted through rapport-building events such as the confessional. In programs such as American Idol, this intimacy can be translated into votes. For instance, in the fifth and highest-rated season of American Idol, 500 million votes were cast in the duration of the season. The interactive nature of the program allows viewers to influence the outcome of the program, a novel concept in U.S. television, which is often beset by the norms of genre that can produce insipid and predictable programming. Audiences have demonstrated an affinity for shows whose ends cannot be predicted and for influencing the outcomes of their favorite programs.

Television executives make full use of contemporary technology in promoting interest in their programs and in generating revenue for partners. Fans of American Idol, for example, are able to text message their vote, rather than simply making a call, if they are customers of Cingular Wireless, which has exclusive rights with Fox. In the fourth season, 41.5 million votes were cast using text messaging, and the total climbed to 64.5 million in the fifth season. Customers who call may utilize a toll-free number, however, those who text message a vote are charged applicable fees. In March of 2006, Vice President of Marketing at Cingular, John Burbank, had this to say about Cingular’s alliance with the program: “Our expectations for a record-breaking year with ‘American Idol’ is not based solely on high hopes; it is grounded in actual results that we’ve realized so far. Since we first launched much of our ‘Idol’-themed content six weeks ago, Cingular has realized a significant increase in messaging results.” The fact that the industry has found a way to create revenue through interactive television formats, such as voting, suggests that this facet of reality programming will proliferate until it is no longer profitable.

One can only expect that the partnerships between television and related industries will continue to expand, with or without American Idol and Survivor. These programs have demonstrated that audiences are interested in unpredictable and fresh programs whose endings are not already set by the norms of a genre. The very fact that such programming has achieved success by being “fresh” suggests that eventually these programs must fade away in favor of new ideas and innovative approaches to programming. Yet, this does not mean that competition-based reality programs will go away; however, they will need to be continually reinvented to remain relevant. Reinvention also will assist in generating syndication value. The ratings success of programs such as American Idol Rewind, a repackaged version of earlier seasons of American Idol, suggests that reality television programming might have appeal in syndication if updated to include such things as previously unseen footage, new interviews, and fresh behind-the-scenes information.

Makeover Shows

The makeover show is a versatile subgenre powered by a strong value in the American mythos: the desire for reinvention or, at least, improvement. The range of transformations that viewers can witness is impressive: from individual, to family, home, and even neighborhood makeovers. In shows such as Extreme Makeover, The Biggest Loser, The Swan, Starting Over, What Not to Wear, or Ambush Makeover the body is transformed through more or less intrusive techniques ranging from haircuts and makeup, through diet and exercise, to cosmetic surgery. For example, in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, one of the earliest and most successful style makeover shows, the target is one’s style as visible in one’s clothing and grooming, knowledge of food and wine, or apartment decoration. Released on July 24, 2003, on Bravo, at that moment a recent NBC acquisition, the show gathered record-breaking ratings for the station (3.34 million viewers at its peak in September), won Emmy, GLAAD, and PGA awards, and brought NBC over $15 million from the initial sale of the show. The show features in each hour-long episode a self-proclaimed heterosexual male whose apartment is in chaos, who does not groom or dress himself properly, and who cannot cook or entertain a culturally sophisticated conversation. All these aspects of his “style” are critiqued and then changed by a team of five gay men “who specialize in fashion, food & wine, grooming, culture, and interior design.” What adds to the success of the show, besides the audiences’ penchant for witnessing transformations, is the charm of the permanent cast whose members win hearts through their “genuineness.” As Adam B. Vary comments, “simply by being themselves—openly gay men who are commanding, funny, whipsmart, and disarmingly personable,” the “Fab 5” enter American homes as friends who help straight men help themselves.

The business potential of the “Fab 5,” and that of makeover shows in general, is particularly high. Product placement is not only easy but is required by the transformation process, especially when it comes to style. Jon Lafayette, for instance, notes how such things as Crest White Strips, Bosch appliances, Target Stores, and the Denali SUV are incorporated into episodes. For the 2005 Australian version of the show, companies such as 3 mobile, Volvo, and David Jones paid an estimated A$800,000 each to be “associated with the program.” Being a subgenre that capitalizes on advice, there is also room for a “spillover” of the show into other media, such as the publication of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Fab 5’s Guide to Looking Better, Cooking Better, Dressing Better, Behaving Better, and Living Better. The various hosts also have published books focusing on their particular specialty. Ted Allen, for example, has capitalized on his role as the program’s food specialist by publishing a recipe book.

The limited run of the twin show, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, during the 2005 season suggests that, although there is room for success with style makeover shows, there is also room for failure. The latter was credited to the insufficient variation from the “parent-show,” as well as to a cast whose charisma does not parallel the “Fab 5.” People magazine, for instance, states, “[Robbie] Laughlin appears ticketed for the chief quipster’s role, though he lacks the waspish wit of Straight Guys Carson Kressley … The cast is adequate, but the show comes off as a calculated Queer Eye brand extension.” Such comments suggest that, as in elimination shows, the charm and genuineness of the cast is crucial for the show’s continuing success. It also points to the importance of the shock value in a show, ensured in our first example by the general project: a show featuring a gay cast advising heterosexual men how to be more heterosexually desirable.

Makeover shows that do not run short of shock value are those regarding bodily transformation through cosmetic surgery. Extreme Makeover, The Swan, or I Want a Famous Face all use surgeries to transform chosen “patients” into physically improved versions of themselves, beauty-pageant material, or an alias of a particular celebrity. The shock in these shows is ensured not only by the radical transformation of its participants but also by scenes of the actual surgeries. In Extreme Makeover, for example, an “Extreme Team” of doctors (dermatologists, eye and plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists); fashion, hair, and makeup stylists; and personal trainers present to the viewers a shortened version of a lengthy (sometimes around six months) process of bodily transformation. The experience of “Jim,” a 35-year-old groom featured on episode four of the fourth season, demonstrates the extensive nature of the typical makeover. The ABC Web site for the program, which lists the procedures Jim endured, does not hesitate to incorporate product placement when possible: “Upper and lower eyelid lift, rhinoplasty, brow lift, hernia repair and liposuction] on face, abdomen, waist and love handles, LASIK eye surgery, laser hair removal, skin tag removal, 14 porcelain da Vinci crowns and veneers, gum repositioning and Zoom whitening, hair transplant and hair restoration.” But while the shock value may be what attracts viewers in the first place, it does not seem to do the job of maintaining their interest, as the short life of these shows testifies. Extreme Makeover ran for four seasons (2002-2005), The Swan for two, and MTV’s I Want a Famous Face only for one (2004). For advertisers, the appeal of this type of makeover show is also limited both in terms of opportunities for product placement and because, due to the potentially disturbing content of the program, the age range of the audience is reduced. Perhaps this is why makeover shows that feature plastic surgery, such as Dr. 90210, are turning their spotlight toward the doctor’s personal life and the pleasant outcomes of cosmetic reconstruction and do not show the struggles patients endure in the long, drawn-out process of recovering from major surgery.

The drawbacks of product placement and audience age range do not exist, however, for shows that have expanded their focus from the individual person to the couple (The Beauty and the Geek), the whole family (Wife Swap, Supernanny, Nanny 911), their household (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), and even the neighborhood (Extreme Neighborhood Makeover). Most of these shows have maintained and, in some case, even increased their popularity. Maybe the most instructive example of the business resourcefulness of makeover shows is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Running continuously since 2003 with an average of 15.8 million viewers per episode, this Emmy-award-winning show tapped into the remodeling trend fueled by cable networks such as HGTV (Home and Garden Television) and TLC (The Learning Channel) and by “a hunger for security in the post-September 11 era [combined with] a growing middle class sense of entitlement.” Rather than doing partial home makeovers, the show engages in a full transformation. Aided by construction firms that volunteer products and a workforce, the house of a “desperate and deserving” family, as Denise Cramsay, the show’s executive producer explains, is torn down and a new, fully furnished one is built in its stead. The emotional appeal of this show is ensured by the heart-wrenching family story provided in the beginning of the show and by the family’s reactions to their transformed home.

But while emotions run high, so does the pragmatism of viewers, producers, and volunteers. As Shabnam Mogharabi notes, the show not only taps into the public’s interest in home improvement but also fuels it, remodeling not only houses but the remodeling industry itself. Coordinating producer of the show, Diane Korman, states, “the first year that Sears was with us, their business went up 35 percent. … We featured a company that makes misting cacti, and they had more calls than they could fulfill. Craftmaid Cabinets literally shuts down their factories for one week to make our kitchens.” Examples are numerous of how the volunteer companies profit financially from the exposure that the show offers them. A more enduring profit that they make, though, comes in a less quantifiable, yet financially relevant form: corporate citizenship. Whether the volunteering firms really are good corporate citizens for their communities, we do not know. But according to the program, they are our good neighbors and, as any public relations professional knows, such ethos has long-term financial value. The show’s long-term business value becomes even more evident if we consider that, unlike HGTV and TLC do-it-yourself niche programs, Home Edition targets a broader audience by focusing “on the drama of doing a four-month gutting overhaul of a rundown home in just seven days,” while families take a trip away from the construction site, sometimes to Disneyland.  The show’s openness to younger audiences increases the possibility for diverse product placement (such as the Disney park) as well as for building brand fidelity among its young viewers, while maintaining the interest of middle-class, middle-aged audiences.

In connecting with its middle-class buying audiences, the Home Edition is taking the first steps toward an interactive approach that starts to approximate a “platform” marketing strategy. Thus, one can go to the show’s Web site in order to find what and how a company contributed to the show and how it can be contacted. More room for interaction remains, nevertheless. Similarly, the show has started to create merchandise tie-ins, selling on its Web page a few T-shirts and mugs, but again, this also remains an avenue to be further explored.

The considerable number of makeover shows, even if they do not all survive, indicates that the fascination with the topos of reinvention (whether we consider it as an American or universal one) is powerful and that shows that know how to tap into it will continue to air and to make a profit for television stations and advertising businesses alike. The previous analysis has indicated that, once again, the cast is a crucial component for success, ensuring theatricality and the emotional-humane appeal of the show. For advertising companies, the makeover shows can be oases for product-placement and firm exposure, and the openness to broader audiences only increases the business possibility for brand fidelity. What has remained relatively unexplored in makeover shows so far are the merchandise tie-ins, as well as an interactive approach to audiences.


The characterization of the documentary soap opera is not uncontroversial and allows for an understanding of the genre as a locus of change rather than one of stability. While the issue of line-drawing remains alive for each individual show, it is generally accepted that a docu-soap draws on its documentary and soap opera parents when it comes to filming and editing, respectively. The shows combine the documentary shooting techniques of direct cinema (unsteady shots and unharmonious composition with a focus on mundane activities) with the editing techniques of soap operas (“short narrative sequences, intercuts of multiple plot lines … the use of musical sound track, and a focus on character personality”), which emphasize the entertaining potential of the show. Susan Murray and Stella Bruzzi point out that it is the entertainment versus the educational binary that best serves as a criterion for genre classification, rather than the “naturalness” of the settings, for example. This criterion allows us to include in the docu-soap category not only the British classics Vets in Practice and Driving School, which document the life of people in their usual settings, but it also enables the genre cohabitation of U.S. classics such as MTV’s Real World, documenting the life of a few ordinary people brought to live together, and An American Love Story, following the daily life of an African American family as it unfolds in different locations in the early 1970s.

Real World is the uncontested champion of the docu-soap subgenre and, arguably, a pioneer of today’s conception of reality television as a whole. In the words of Marc Peyser, “Would ‘Survivor’ or ‘The Mole’ have made it on the air if ‘The Real World’ hadn’t proved that turning a camera on a bunch of nonactors without a script could be as entertaining as many sitcoms and dramas?” Launched on May 21, 1992, MTV’s Real World has aired 18 seasons, has the nineteenth in production and is casting already for its twentieth. Over the first decade, the show’s popularity has increased steadily so as to triple in 2001. The shows longevity seems to be attributable to the diverse character traits of the cast, which serve as the feeding ground for compelling stories. Although the show’s creators, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, deny any attempt at choosing particularly controversial demographics,  the audiences have seen gay weddings, women going through abortions, racial mini-wars, touching stories of a cast member’s death, struggles with substance abuse, and a cast member living with HIV. While the age requirement, which is 18 to 24 years, prevents the program from attracting an even more diverse cast, it also ensures that youth-filled antics maintain ratings.

As in the other previously discussed subgenres, the cast seems to be the cornerstone for the success of the docu-soaps, in this case, a cast with strong potential for the confessional and the dramatic. Such potential is missing in docu-soaps such as Sunset Tan, The Hills, or Nashville. Nashville, produced in 2007 by Fox, builds on the format of the other two in following the daily life of white, rich, young people who, this time, try to make their way into the country music industry rather than work in a tanning salon or intern for Teen Vogue (as in Sunset Tan and The Hills, respectively). But audiences seem to have gotten enough of “cast members [who] sit around and complain about their problems despite being absurdly wealthy, [who have] forced, awkward, pause-filled dialogues.” After the show’s premiere broadcast finished in last place in its 9:00 P.M. (ET/PT) time period, averaging only 2.72 million viewers, and did not take off in the following two weeks, Fox decided to put the show on hiatus a couple of weeks earlier than originally intended. The lack of drama beyond the usual breakups and crushes, which did not bring anything else new to what The Hills, for instance, was already offering viewers through a more charismatic cast, was not enough to keep the audiences watching.

In search of more original dramatic content, A&E (Arts and Entertainment) and the Discovery-owned TLC turned to “ink docu-soaps.” Inked and Miami Ink are these networks’ respective products, dueling in similar content for audiences. Both shows bring audiences into the relatively unknown life of tattoo parlors situated either inside a major Las Vegas casino or on Miami’s South Beach. The attraction comes from more than fulfilling our voyeuristic desires. In Miami Ink, Ami James and three world-class tattoo artists face the challenges of running their own business, while Inked also delights the viewers with the mounting tensions among the saloon’s “colorful” staff members. Furthermore, the drama in these shows is ensured by the client’s stories. Many see tattoos as modes of self-expression, and consequently, “people don’t get tattoos for no reason,” as Matt Gould, Miami Ink‘s executive producer comments. There is a story behind each tattoo, and these docu-soaps capitalize on the drama in these stories. Chris Garver, senior tattooist at Miami Ink, tells how “Yesterday I had the most incredible experience. A father came in with his family and he had a 9-year-old daughter who beat cancer. He wanted to commemorate that she’s alive.”  The tattoo artists not only give clients the desired souvenir but also a compassionate ear, transforming the salon into a place of healing through intimate confession. As the producer Matt Gould notes: “To be a tattoo artist, you not only have to have technical skills, but you have to be imaginative and be a psychiatrist as well.” As the clients of Miami Ink range from celebrities to tourists and regular people, the range of stories to be told and confessions to be heard have the potential to keep alive audiences’ interest in this unusual show.

Although Miami Ink was blamed for damaging Discovery’s “erudite” brand identity with its sensationalism, the show is well and alive. Its producers are also capitalizing on the dynamism of its audiences by using a Web page to keep them involved in the show: One can submit their own tattoos, rank existing ones, take tattoo IQ tests, or write their comments on the message boards. Beside an increased interactivity, the lesson that the “tattoo TV” has to teach the docu-soap is important for the survival of the subgenre: A multilayered drama is key. A well-chosen permanent cast, the value of which Real World has proven, is crucial in providing good drama. But when the interactions between members of the permanent cast cannot hold viewers’ interest, such as in Nashville, the temporary cast, the tattoo clients in this case, can enliven the show and keep alive the audience’s curiosity.


The celebreality subgenre moves away from the everyday person to feature faded or C-list celebrities seeking to jump-start their careers. This kind of programming is based on the notion that a faded celebrity can still generate interest among their fans, who are curious to see how the celebrity has fared through the years as well as how they act in supposedly nonscripted situations. Lesser-known, current celebrities can generate interest as well, if their programs are engaging, such as Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s Newlyweds, which focused on the couple trying to adjust to married life. A successful program will not only generate interest among an established fan base, it will ultimately create new fans. Some of the programs are heavily planned, as is the case with a program such as Scott Baio is 45 and Single, whereas other programs, such as Shooting Sizemore, which features a substance abusing Tim Sizemore, are tragically real and unpredictable. Celebreality programming has given new life to struggling networks because it is relatively inexpensive and quick to produce, while it generates meaningful ratings.

Although many networks produce reality shows that feature celebrities, VH1 has done much to make this type of programming their signature style. In 2004, VH1’s ratings had reached a low point. The success of The Osbournes on sister station MTV prompted a change of approach. In 2005, VH1 offered three celebreality programs: Hogan Knows Best, Breaking Bonaduce, and Surreal Life. The experiment was successful, and the station increased its viewership by 20 percent. In 2006, the ratings continued to climb, increasing 14 percent from 2005. VH1’s performance in 2006 marked the network’s most-watched year ever. Christopher Rocchio reports, “Due to the success of its ‘Celebreality’ reality programming lineup, VH1 now ranks in the top five basic cable networks in primetime on Sundays.” Motivated by the success of their celebreality experiment, parent company Viacom International requested trademark status for the word “celebreality” and started using the word to refer to its block of programming featuring C-level celebrities. VH1 later expanded its offerings to include such shows as Celebrity Fit Club, Strangelove, My Fair Brady, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, Charm School, Rock of Love, Scott Baio is 45 and Single, and America’s Most Smartest Model. The network even has aired the program 20 Greatest Celebreality Moments, which features comedians commenting on clips from VH1 celebreality shows.

When a celebreality program is successful, there is an effort to reproduce its success to commercial exhaustion. The commodification of Flavor Flav, hype man of the rap group Public Enemy, demonstrates this notion. In 2004, Flavor Flav was one of the celebrities featured in the VH1 celebreality program Surreal Life 3. His relationship with Brigitte Nielsen on the program generated so much interest that the network scheduled them both to appear in Strangelove, a 2005 show that focused on the couple trying to integrate into each other’s very different lives. Flavor Flav’s appeal continued to be so strong that the network next decided to have him star in his own dating show, similar to the reality program The Bachelor, in which one man has a bevy of women vying to be selected as his potential mate. The program was named Flavor of Love and, at first, critics evinced disparaging comments about the program. One reality television magazine referred to the program as, “the first reality tv vomit of the year.” However, fans were not deterred. The season finale became the highest rated program in VH1’s history at the time, drawing nearly 6 million viewers, and it was ranked first in basic cable programming in the highly desired 18 to 49 age group demographic. Attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the program, the network showed Flavor Flav being dumped in the reunion program by the woman he selected in season one, creating space for a second season of Flavor of Love. The finale of the second season drew even more viewers, nearly 7.5 million, again making ratings history for the network. Not surprisingly, a third season and various spin-offs were subsequently developed. The short-lived series Charm School featured rejects from Flavor of Love being schooled in etiquette and manners by the comedienne Mo’Nique. The multiseason series I Love New York features Tiffany Pollard, who was given the nickname “New York” by Flavor Flav in season one, looking to find love on her own reality dating program. The relentless “spinning off” of new programs derived from other popular shows demonstrates the network’s almost desperate attempt to capitalize off of the trend of the moment.

The spin-off phenomenon suggests that celebreality programming can be invigorating for fledgling networks, but it also is helpful in restarting a forgotten celebrity’s career or recouping a famous person’s marred image. Even stars whose careers peaked more than 30 years ago have been shown to provoke interest, such as Christopher Knight, the middle son from The Brady Bunch, who appeared on Surreal Life 4. His romance with first-season winner of America’s Next Top Model, Adrianne Curry, peaked sufficient fan interest that two seasons of the subsequent program featuring Knight and Curry, My Fair Brady, were produced. The example of Adrianne Curry shows that an unknown person can develop into a celebrity through, and have their fame based entirely on, reality television. The MTV program The Newlyweds essentially gave life to the careers of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, even as it showed their nascent marriage falling apart. Heather Mills, who was demonized upon her divorce with Paul McCartney, used her role on Dancing with the Stars in an effort to recoup her embattled image.

The celebreality genre feeds into a viewer’s voyeuristic desire to peer into the lives of celebrities, seeing how they live their day-to-day lives or how they have fallen apart through the years. Although this type of programming can produce record-breaking ratings, it also can be difficult to sustain because once the shock value of the program has worn off, audiences can become easily bored. One approach television producers have employed to address this problem is featuring a rotating cast. Rotating cast members who appear in similar situations breathe new life into a potentially stale situation. Dancing with the Stars, for example, features different stars every season trying to win a dancing competition, thus keeping the interest level higher. Even the popularity of such commercially viable celebreality stars as Flavor Flav will eventually lose luster. Anticipating that fans will eventually tire of this character, the network introduced Rock of Love, which features Bret Michaels, lead singer of the band Poison, in a similar reality dating show situation. One can only imagine that yet another faded star will follow as audiences tire of the person featured. As celebreality stars become overexposed and passé, as their antics become predictable and their situations mundane, they must be replaced with the next star of the moment in a setting that provides variety and novelty.

The Future of Reality Television

Many have predicted the demise of reality television. As this analysis indicates, it is no doubt difficult for individual programs, as well as entire genres, to maintain a high degree of interest among media-savvy consumers in a competitive environment filled with choices. Yet, economic interests drive the market. As long as the production of reality television remains attractive to investors and inexpensive, easy, and quick to manufacture, there will be an important place for the genre in the industry. Crucial elements for investors include keeping the genre appealing and innovative so that it continues to attract a broad cross section of the American public and keeping costs down while generating ample advertising revenue.

There is no doubt that the reality television genre has been profitable for networks and those who have chosen to advertise with them. The ability of reality television to draw in diverse audiences is unusual in today’s media environment. The growth of cable offerings in the 1980s fragmented audiences, making it more difficult to reach a wide range of consumers. Additionally, the increasing pluralism of the United States has meant that advertisers have to be strategic in connecting with diverse populations. Distinct cable channels have been developed to address particular demographics (e.g., Spike for men, Oxygen for women, Logo for the gay and lesbian community, BET for the black community) or particular kinds of interests (HGTV and the Food Network for home and garden, and food, enthusiasts, respectively). The only programming that has been able to consistently attract a broad cross section of viewers is sports. The 2007 Super Bowl, for example, drew an average of 93 million people, and 139 million people either watched all or part of the game. These kinds of numbers enabled CBS to charge up to $2.6 million for a 30-second commercial spot. The surge of reality television, while profitable and interest generating, still pales in comparison to the ratings and revenue of sports. However, it has been “the next best thing” at this time.

What the most popular reality television shows have in common with sports is the ability to draw a broad cross section of people. Survivor and American Idol have themes that are interesting to people across gender, race, sexuality, and age; thus, they attract a diverse audience and achieve high ratings. Reality programs that are able to draw on universal themes, or at least themes that appeal to a nation-state’s entrenched cultural values, will be successful in the future. Reality television is well-suited to making the changes necessary to remain appealing over time because the content or form can be poached from other genres, such as drama and comedy, while simply “reinventing” it using real people in real places in real time. This relates to Hill’s comment in the introduction that reality television demonstrates television’s ability to cannibalize itself. Reality television simply takes forms that television, film, and literature have already produced countless times and situates “real” people in “real” places parroting essentially the same themes. Survivor is ultimately a derivation of the story of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), Castaway (2000), and Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson (there are countless film and television adaptations of these literary works), but it features everyday people who have chosen to live in such an environment for a finite amount of time. This age-old story is alluring because it speaks to our desire for adventure and Americans’ desire to control (or survive) nature. The Bachelor is simply The Dating Game (1965-1973) with people living in a house for a couple of weeks instead of on a stage in a chair for half an hour. The love story theme, while perhaps not as universal as the desire for adventure, still resonates with broad audiences. Consequently, the possibilities are endless for reality television. It is the creative capacity of television writers and producers to excavate the essentially endless mine of ideas that already exist, and perhaps add a few of their own, that will ultimately determine the genre’s ability to remain engaging for audiences.

The form itself is attractive to people in the industry because it provides ample opportunity for advertising revenue, while it is comparatively inexpensive to develop and produce. Advertisers desperately seek to reach consumers in a media environment filled with clutter. The remote control combined with countless network and on-demand options enables viewers to easily tune out ads, while technology such as DVR recorders, TiVo, and downloadable programming can completely eliminate the traditional commercial. Product placement opportunities on reality television enable alternatives to the traditional ad. The potential advertising profit for television networks is appreciable because reality television can be relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, particularly because popular personalities do not have to be remunerated. A one-hour drama such as 24, for example, costs approximately $2 million to produce, while at the same time a show like Real World costs only $300,000. Additionally, because reality television writers are nonunionized at this time, reality television programming can provide filler while unionized writers are on strike, thus solidifying its place in a market driven by financial interests.

Previously, a drawback to reality television was its lack of appeal in syndication. Because it thrives on shock value and unpredictability, it makes sense that once the show has been aired and the audience knows the ending, it is not as enticing to watch in reruns as a program such as Seinfeld, whose comedy continually draws laughs. Executives have been strategic in finding ways to create value for reality shows in syndication by repackaging the programs. Including new narration and interviews as well as unseen footage generates fresh interest in old programs. Programs such as American Idol Rewind are demonstrating that with some retooling, repeats of favorite shows may draw impressive ratings. Even programs that have not been altered are finding a place in syndication. America’s Next Top Model, for example, has gone into syndication in its original form, and while the program is not in daily syndication, it is used in television marathons. One can only expect that television executives will become even more creative in adapting reality programs to syndication.

Long term, whether reality television production will be able to keep costs down while also maintaining interest in the genre, is another matter. Grainger David points out, “Though reality began its assault on network television as the poor man’s sitcom—shows were generally thought to cost about $300,000 for a half-hour, vs. one million dollars for a scripted show—that gap has narrowed, if not disappeared.” Of course, cost depends to a certain degree on who is producing the program and is relative to how much revenue the show is expected to generate. Mark Burnett, who has been responsible for producing such hits as Survivor and The Apprentice, can command higher revenues to produce his programs because his track record has been so successful. However, when the margin between the cost and revenue begins to close, the genre, the producer, and the various facets of the show will have to be re-examined.

Benchmarking and reassessment are essential for the success of any product, process, or company. Consequently, we should expect industry leaders and television critics to continually question the efficacy and endurance of television programs, producers, and networks. But, is it realistic to suggest the demise of the reality television genre itself? Would one predict the end of the action adventure genre? The crime drama? The comedy? All genres ebb and flow according to the conventions established by their generic form, the creative capacity of those who seek to use it as a vehicle for their ideas, and the willingness of audiences to accept changes to the generic forms to which they have become accustomed. We predict that the reality television genre is here to stay, and it will be subjected to the same struggles that other generic forms face, the most pressing of which is the ability to remain relevant, imaginative, and interesting. Because the reality television genre can poach other generic forms, we predict that the genre has the ability to have a greater shelf life than others if its creative potential is exploited.

The reality television genre continues to draw record number audiences, even as individual shows may fade. Each season there are winners and losers, shows that surge and shows that fade, yet, the genre itself remains intact. It is dubious that reality television will disappear, but in order to retain the ratings this genre has enjoyed, industry leaders will need to grapple with the challenge that vexes every artist: the ability to remain a creative force.