This week saw the return of Survivor, the veteran reality show, now in its 21st season—and still a ratings powerhouse (the season premiere pulled in a strong 12 million viewers).
But ten years after the reality television boom began there have been precious few new ideas within the genre. You know the clichés and conventions: 10 "larger than life" contestants living in a luxury LA mansion together; design students/hairdressers/chefs battling it out in a cutthroat competition for a cash prize; endless shows set in cake shops or featuring "oversize" families; and panels of judges dishing out caustic critiques to fame-hungry wannabes.
As a TV producer who's been working in the reality genre for the last decade, even I find myself frustrated by the same copycat ideas repeated again and again. But based on all my experiences of developing formats, pitching networks, and executive producing shows, I can shed light on just why so much reality feels so repetitive.
WHATEVER WORKS: Like all TV genres, reality has its own set of conventions that exist simply because, well, they work! Just as legal dramas rely on courtroom scenes and game shows need great prizes, reality producers have learned the tricks to eliciting strong reality. No wonder they use them time and again.
What works for reality shows? In a word—stakes. That means ticking clocks and time limits; high-pressure decisions with no time to think; eliminations and competition; skilled people working in high stress conditions; and judging panels (the blunter the better). Good reality is all about constant jeopardy, whether it's the threat of being sent home, the cake that's about to burn, or the date that might turn you down.
What doesn't work in the reality world? In a word, fun. People always criticize reality shows for being mean-spirited, but trust me there's nothing more boring than watching people sunbathing, enjoying dinner, or shopping. Reality has to be dramatic and high-stakes—and there are only so many ways to push people's buttons.
FAMILIARITY RULES: Another reason so many reality shows look and feel the same? Simple—they're made by the same producers. Top-tier production companies get the lion's share of the shows precisely because networks want their series to look and feel exactly the same. If they buy from the same producers there's an implicit guarantee of a certain look and feel to a show. It minimizes risk (which networks hate)—but also leads to a lot less innovation.
Vh1, for example, continuously uses 51 Minds. The reason—the company essentially built the network's "brand" via shows like Flavor of Love and Rock of Love. There's a certain look and feel to a 51 Minds show, which is why they're hired again and again to produce the same product. In the same way Original Productions are the kings of "rough and tough" guy shows such as Deadliest Catch and Magical Elves made their name with smart and entertaining competition series like Project Runway and Top Chef. Nowadays you can tell just by looking at the credits what a series is going to look and feel like.
DIVINE INSPIRATION: I can't tell you how many times I've seen my own show ideas in development at another production company. Everyone thinks TV people steal ideas left, right and, center (mostly people who don't work in the industry and are paranoid their 'amazing' idea is going to be ripped off) but the fact is we're all watching the same TV shows, reading the same magazines, and surfing the same sites. If an idea is in the zeitgeist of course it's going to become a show. And hence there's a lot of repetition.
TV Land's dating competition show The Cougar is a prime case—ripped straight from the headlines just when the older-woman-dates-younger-man phenomenon was in full swing. Ditto all the recent recession reality shows—Vh1's You're Cut Off and NBC's latest Apprentice (featuring laid-off workers). TV mirrors what's going on in the culture—how else would Bristol Palin end up on Dancing With The Stars? But it also means that networks frequently develop similar formats at the same time. Just look at how many pawn shop shows are now hitting our screens. Just a coincidence?
READ THE SCRIPT: As a Brit working in the US I abhor the concept of Scripted Reality. For me, if you need to script a show it's because the format isn't very strong or your cast is weak. But many companies and networks (often not the ones you'd think!) can't help but second-guess themselves and insist on sending producers into the field laden with hefty 'shooting scripts' they must follow to the letter.
The result—a whole lot of formulaic shows that adhere to set reality conventions. It's why the cupcake shop gets a sudden rush of orders or the client of the celebrity stylist turns up two hours late. It didn't really happen that way of course—but that's how the reality is "produced."
The problem with scripted reality is that it always feels fake because ordinary people aren't very good actors and reality producers aren't drama directors. Trust me, truth is always vastly more entertaining than a show writer can conceive and American reality series would benefit greatly from an actual dose of reality. It'd make shows a lot less predictable—and formulaic.
HIT ME AGAIN: And finally—and most obvious of all—everyone out there wants a hit. And for many people the best way to guarantee a hit is to simply copy what's already working. It's why Cake Boss has spawned so many baking shows, Jersey Shore has made New Jersey TV's golden state and why we're still seeing so many 'alternative' families on our screens, five years after The Osbournes ended. Copycats are never as good as the original and always feel derivative. But that's not gonna stop networks jumping on the bandwagon if they sense a hot trend.
Unfortunately if you're hoping reality will be coming to an end soon—think again. Like all genres—including drama, comedy and game shows—reality TV is here to stay. But thankfully even amidst all the copies and clones you can still find some originals if you look hard enough—shows like Vh1's fascinating OCD Project and Oxygen's ridiculous but entertaining Hair Battle Spectacular. It's up to us as viewers to make these hidden gems hits. Otherwise they, too, will be voted off the island.