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?