The unpleasant realities of reality TV

Globe and Mail
July 13, 2000
By John Allemang

Pasadena, Calif. -- Like the morning mists that hang over the San Gabriel Mountains in this historic Los Angeles suburb, the instant success of the voyeuristic CBS series Survivor and Big Brother has obscured the traditional television landscape.

Reality television is the way of the future, North America's television critics all solemnly intoned after Survivor's rat-eaters and Big Brother's imprisoned bickerers drew huge audiences to their premieres. TV audiences, especially the younger viewers that advertisers hunger for, are tired of stale dramatic formulas and weary sitcoms that reverberate with the sound of artificial laughter.

It was an easy conclusion to draw, and not just from the Nielsen numbers that showed these lowbrow shows outranking everything else on the schedule, even the previously invincible Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Compared to the bland and predictable series that the Hollywood studios have come up with to fill the holes in the fall lineup, the CBS peep shows challenged the ready-made assumptions of old-style TV. Nobodies like Stacey, the stuck-up Survivor lawyer, and Jordan, Big Brother's butt-wiggling exotic dancer, were the new face of television. The big stars of the 2000-2001 season, like Geena Davis, Bette Midler, James Cameron and John Goodman were antiquated before their name-brand shows even arrived.

And then, as the TV critics converged on Pasadena for our semi-annual meetings with the leaders of the U.S. networks and the stars of their shows, the way to the future clouded over very suddenly. Big Brother started to look like a dud. The huge audiences for last Wednesday's debut fell by 40 per cent on Thursday. On Friday, another 25 per cent wandered away. By Saturday, a further 25 per cent abandoned the 10 self-centred contestants locked up inside the specially built Big Brother house for the next three months.

Big Brother may have been watching their every move, but TV audiences were fleeing in droves, looking for TV that was actually about something. It was a disaster in the making, and nothing could be more pleasing to the members of the Television Critics Association who would rather watch the smug network heads squirm than hear them gloat about their programming brilliance.

Never mind that we now may have to go back on all those theories enunciated so convincingly last week. And never mind that six months ago, we were saying that quiz shows were the dark future of television, or that six months before that, it was going to be teen dramas that monopolized the airwaves to the exclusion of all that was fine and good.

TV is a medium without a sense of its own history, and who needs consistency when you can have a good dustup with CBS's smoothly self-confident president Les Moonves? Wasn't it Moonves, after all, who complained here just last January that the trend to game shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire would be the death of fine drama and comedy? And isn't Moonves the one who likes to meet with the Pope and the President to talk about his commitment to quality broadcasting? It should be hugely entertaining when he arrives here next week to explain why Big Brother is actually a ratings success and a contribution to the betterment of humanity.

In the gilded ballrooms of the Pasadena Ritz Carlton Hotel, where the critics gather to hear the executives' lies, the talk is already about what will happen to the boring Big Brother prisoners if the ratings continue to plummet. Will they end up like the forgotten cosmonauts in the space station Mir, abandoned to their dreary confinement while penitent viewers clamour for reruns of The Nanny? Could CBS cancel the show, and send the TV guinea pigs out into a cruel world where everybody knows about their neuroses and nobody cares?

Or, as most of the hardened realists of the Television Critics Association agree between bites of their chicken fajitas, will desperate CBS executives try to bump up the ratings by forcing confrontations and demanding more sex play? Even though the Big Brother contestants are supposed to be isolated from the influence of the outside world, those who monitor the show's 24-hour Webcast have picked up hints that the participants already know their popularity is slipping.

This is how we spend our time in the Pasadena lockup, surviving on scraps of information about Big Brother while waiting to be rescued by a smart new drama equal to last year's The West Wing or the previous season's Sopranos.

But critics aren't the only ones both transfixed and disturbed by reality television. TV producers likewise are trying to calculate how series like this will affect both the medium and their roles in it. "I think that Survivor is not an endlessly renewable resource," said Law & Order's Dick Wolf. "I mean, I don't know how many uninhabited islands there are."

He could joke. He has three series on the fall schedule. But for Judd Apatow, producer of the critically acclaimed but now-cancelled NBC teen show Freaks and Geeks, reality television's future looks more dire. "Clearly, somebody is going to get killed in the next six months," he predicted.

His one consolation? "I was thinking as I go in to pitch shows for next season that my pitch is, 'Please let me make the show that makes you feel less dirty about the other shit you put on the air. Let me help you sleep at night.' "