What is reality?

We ain’t seen nothin’ yet in quest for so-called “reality” TV concepts.

Marketing Magazine, August 28, 2000   

If the buzz, the coverage, the hype and the scrutiny don’t convince you, the Nielsen numbers will: remote-punchers can’t get enough “reality” — not real “reality,” but a kind of highly produced reality substitute.


If people really wanted reality, they’d be watching news, and the numbers show they’re not doing that any more now than they were, say, last year. Maybe their not watching the news is a way of communicating how believable they think it is, i.e., not at all.


This all started with a two-year-old British game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, that ABC hastily dropped into its schedule as a mid-season replacement. Soon it had obliterated everything else in its time slot. CTV had no choice but to take the show. Now it’s belatedly trying to establish some kind of “ownership” of the franchise by “Canadianizing” the program for Sept. 7. They’re playing the Canuck Millionaire in New York, a city Canadians would much rather visit than any place in this country. If they’re playing Canadian Millionaire in the United States of America, why is the prize a million Canadian dollars? Wouldn’t that make the winner two-thirds of a millionaire?


CBS played it smarter than the other networks, having seen what happened to Fox’s doomed attempt at a Millionaire clone with Greed. Instead, CBS leapfrogged ABC by Americanizing a couple of Dutch imports, Survivor and Big Brother. These two shows are “reality” only insofar as there’s no script beforehand. And that’s unfortunate, because even the worst sitcom writer could come up with better patter than the dwindling population of Pulau Tiga. Everybody seems willing to ignore the fact that there must be a minimum of three cameras recording every instant of Survivor.


Nobody knows who the winner of Big Brother will be, but we definitely know some losers: the producers and editors whose job it is to trudge through hour after hour of taped tedium and find about 44 minutes worth of entertainment scattered therein.


Why have these mighty networks stooped to importing European variations on what is essentially an American art form, the television game show?


The next step is obvious and, just the same way that Survivor mashes together Gilligan’s Island with a game of musical chairs, it’s a hybrid. VH1’s Behind The Music is reviving the careers of acts that used to be the answers to trivia questions. There’s your survivor quotient right up front. To make it more interesting, see how well people survive the survivors. Determine who gets to play by asking skill-testing trivia questions about the forgotten pop performers. Once you’ve narrowed it down to three contestants, assign each one a different personal attendant job with their idol. Three metal fans, for example, get to work as car-washer, hair-teaser and Spandex-scrubber respectively for, oh, Poison, let’s say.


You get the behind-the-scenes views of a rock band on the comeback trail, playing one crummy bar after another as they attempt to climb the venue hierarchy. Now we’ve got Big-Brother-meets-Spinal-Tap voyeurism. See how these synergies are starting to build? Add to that a forgotten band taking out its frustrations and disappointments on its underlings — underlings with whom we identify because we’ve seen them get to this stage. And viewers get multiple levels of derision and humiliation opportunities. This next stage also makes sense because the current generation of adults grew up watching MTV and its attendant ridiculous contests: Spend the Weekend in Bon Jovi’s Limo Trunk, Comb ZZ Top’s Beards & Keep What You Find, etc.


There are a couple of imports that try to offer backstage glimpses of the star-making machinery behind Britney N Backstreet et al., namely Making the Band and Popstars. But those are both aimed at people a couple of years south of age 14, and they play to adolescent starry-eyed hopefulness. If you really want to connect, you need something less rigidly segmented, something that cuts across a couple of demographic regions, both kiddie-pop dreams and cynical derision.


But if our idea about surviving the survivors doesn’t find favor with desperate network nabobs, we’ve got lots more: how about seeing who can survive a decade protecting French colonial interests in the Middle East as a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Legionnaire? Think eating rats on a tropical island with a flabby corporate trainer confused about his sexuality and an ex-Navy Seal for company is disgusting? Try maintaining the kitchens of folks who can’t read best-before dates as one of the people luckless enough to play Who Wants To Clean A Frigidaire?


Office politics places a premium on toadying and obsequiousness. Find out just how good a butt-smoocher you can be on Who Wants To Kiss This Derriere? And students of French poetry will love matching wits with literary forgers as they try to determine Who Wants To Be Appolinaire?