This past January, I had the pleasure of serving as official spear-catcher for a CBS Evening News report on the increasing levels of humiliation on American Idol and other reality-TV shows, including some on my channel, VH1. The segment featured snippets of our shows I Love New York (a dating competition with an urban vibe) and Celebrity Fit Club (which tracks the efforts of overweight singers and actors to get back in shape, and, by extension, reignite their careers). “VH1, among other things, showcases faded celebrities who are fat,” said the CBS correspondent Richard Schlesinger.
In between shots of me fake working at my computer and fake chatting with the amiable Schlesinger while fake strolling down our corporate-looking hallway, I took my best shot at defending the alleged horrors of AI and CelebrityFit Club. But it was clear that CBS News was set on bemoaning what it saw as yet another outrage against the culture. The central complaint, per Katie Couric’s intro to the report, was that more people had watched American Idol the previous week than watched the State of the Union address on all the broadcast networks combined. When the segment ended, Couric signed off with an extravagant eye roll. “We’re doing our part here at CBS News,” she seemed to be saying, “but the barbarians are massing at the gates, people.” A line had been drawn in the sand, as if the news were now akin to an evening at the Met.
Is there an easier position to take in polite society than to patronize reality TV? Even television programmers see the genre as a kind of visual Hamburger Helper: cheap filler that saves them money they can use elsewhere for more-worthy programming. Reality shows cost anywhere from a quarter to half as much to produce as scripted shows. The money saved on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the logic goes, allows ABC to pay for additional gruesome medical emergencies and exploding ferries on Grey’s Anatomy,. NBC’s crappy Fear Factor pays for the classy Heroes.
As befits a form driven largely by speed and cost considerations, reality TV is not often formally daring. Fifteen years after MTV’s The Real World set the template for contemporary reality TV by placing seven strangers in a downtown Manhattan loft, reality television has developed its own visual shorthand: short doses of documentary footage interspersed with testimonials (often called OTFs, for “on-the-fly” interviews) in which the participants describe, ex post facto, what they were thinking during the action you are watching.
The current boom may be a product of the changing economics of the television business, but reality TV is also the liveliest genre on the set right now. It has engaged hot-button cultural issues—class, sex, race—that respectable television, including the august CBS Evening News, rarely touches. And it has addressed a visceral need for a different kind of television at a time when the Web has made more traditionally produced video seem as stagey as Molière.
Reality TV may be an awkward admixture of documentary (with its connotations of thousands of hours of footage patiently gathered, redacted by monk-like figures into the purest expression of truth possible in 90 to 120 minutes) and scripted (with its auteurs and Emmys and noble overtones of craft). But this kludge also happens to have allowed reality shows to skim the best elements of scripted TV and documentaries while eschewing the problems of each. Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.
Scripted television is supposedly showing new ambition these days, particularly in the hour-long drama form. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was going to bring the chatty intelligence of The West Wing back to prime time. Lost was going to challenge network audiences like never before, with complex plots, dozens of recurring characters, and movie-level production values. Shows are bigger now: On 24 this season, a nuclear bomb exploded. But network prime-time television remains dominated by variants on the police procedural (Law & Order, CSI, Criminal Minds), in which a stock group of characters (ethnically, sexually, and generationally diverse) grapples with endless versions of the same dilemma. The episodes have all the ritual predictability of Japanese Noh theater: Crimes are solved, lessons are learned, order is restored.
Reality shows have leaped into this imaginative void. Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, which began its third season in April, is an oddly transfixing series about … crab fishermen in the Bering Sea. As a straightforward documentary, Catch would have been worthy fodder, but the producers have made it riveting by formatting the whole season as a sporting event, with crab tallies for each of the half dozen or so boats and a race-against-the-clock urgency that, for all its contrivance, gives structure and meaning to the fishermen’s efforts.
Narrative vibrancy is not the only thing that electrifies these shows. Reality TV presents some of the most vital political debate in America, particularly about class and race. Fox’s Nanny 911 and ABC’s Supernanny each offer object lessons on the hazards of parenting in an age of instant gratification and endless digital diversion. ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition features intensely emotional tales of people who have fallen through the cracks of Bush-era America—often blue-collar families ravaged by disease, health-care costs, insurance loopholes, layoffs, and so forth. My channel’s The (White) Rapper Show turned into a running debate among the aspiring white MCs over cultural authenticity—whether it is more properly bestowed by class or race.
Class realities are plumbed to remarkable effect on The Real Housewives of Orange County, a “docu soap” that completed its second season on Bravo this spring. The show is inspired by a trio of suburban dramas: The O.C., Desperate Housewives, and the 1999 movie American Beauty. Lacking the visual panache, or the budgets, of its scripted forebears, Real Housewives nonetheless goes deeper, charting the spiritual decay of life in gated communities, where financial anxieties, fraying families, and fear of aging leave inhabitants grasping for meaning and happiness as they steer their Escalades across Southern California’s perfectly buffed, featureless landscape. Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner, trafficked in similar white California dread, but with all the nuance of a two-by-four to the face.