The rise and fall of reality television

Illustration by Hannah Swann

Colin Hannifin

Illustration by Hannah Swann

There is little to like on television these days. Sure, there are still smartly scripted and enjoyable shows being aired, like the perennial award winners “Mad Men” or “How I Met Your Mother.”

But more and more content producers are shifting their focus from traditional television offerings into the world of reality television. This decade-old phenomenon is primarily responsible for the decline of television as a cultural medium.

Some background: Reality television has been around as long as television itself. The earliest reality shows were hidden-camera shows and talent-search shows. This is a far cry from the shows we see today. Reality television really exploded in the early 2000s, with genre-redefining shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” debuting to record audiences and prolonged ratings dominance.

In the decade between 2000 and 2010, these two shows alone topped the ratings for six years and continue to do so. The genre has advanced far beyond a few high-succeeding network shows. Cable networks, like the History and Discovery Channels, are now dominated by channel-produced reality programming, like “Ice Road Truckers” or “Swamp Loggers.”

It’s easy to write all of this off as the work of an idle mind worrying too much about television. But since it became a household staple in the 1950s and 60s, television has been the premier and preferred way to transmit information and culture. These shows helped define generations, from the early “I Love Lucy” to “The Andy Griffith Show” and from “Happy Days” to “The Cosby Show.” These were immediate staples of American culture. “Pimp My Ride”? Despite its Internet popularity, I think not.

This isn’t to say that no reality television can be culturally significant, nor is it to say that all scripted shows are. Unfortunately, there has been an explosion of poor reality television programming within our lifetimes. But it isn’t without reason. Reality television offers multiple advantages to networks: significantly lower costs while tapping into America’s seemingly insatiable thirst for highly-edited, real drama.

More than anything, this increased investment in reality television is one thing: a sign of laziness.

The History Channel, instead of focusing on history, shows country boys sticking their hands down muddy holes to catch catfish. What was once the Arts & Entertainment Channel makes most of its revenue off mentally ill individuals who pack their houses to the gills with items they don’t need. The Learning Channel follows around the mother of over a dozen children and calls it a day. While the top reality shows are cleverly produced, the rest of the crop is rarely so lucky.

Content producers should instead buck the reality trend, the easy route, and instead go the way of the American Movie Channel, which has invested in more traditional, scripted shows and won multiple awards with its hits like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad¸” or “The Walking Dead.” These are considered by many to be among the best shows on television – and none of them are reality. Yes, it’s harder to make very good, scripted, traditional shows. However, when it’s done right, it pays off bigger than any cable reality show can.

Reality television is a genre that won’t soon be disappearing. Shows like “American Idol” have proven their relevance and power, and won’t soon be exiting television.

The market is, right now, oversaturated with reality television, and it is detracting from the cultural relevance of television. Instead, channels should be focusing on creating quality traditional content which, when well received, can pay far higher dividends than a reality show ever could.


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