If you’re over forty, and someone were to ask you what you think is the most categorical change in television programming in the last twenty years, what would your response be?
I know mine: the inexorable growth of what has come to be called ‘reality programming’. As with much of landmarks in evolution, this has come with both benefits and travails.
First, we have to proceed with a caveat. The distribution of available TV stations has increased dramatically since the 1980s. Up to this time, TV signals mainly encompassed major networks and some independents. (I can recall around 1980 being really impressed that someone I knew in Toronto was able to access some sixty channels. Nowadays, probably most viewers consider that number as only a starting point.) Since the number of signals was limited, so was content demand. Since audience sizes per program were higher, they had to appeal to a larger viewer base, therefore limiting opportunity for unusual or niche market programs.
Now, with the way cable packaging has managed to carve out market openings for more limited viewer segments, targeted programming has become widespread.
But what of ‘reality shows’?
When ‘reality shows’ popped up on mainstream networks, the themes favoured the competitive elimination formulas of the “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”. “The Amazing Race” wedded team competition with travel. Then the tangents appeared on speciality channels, including the survivalist side of the equation, via “Survivorman” and “Man Vs. Wild”.
On the plus side, the need to appease the financial and/or frivolous demands of stars is much less of an issue than with prima donnas of high-rated network shows– although with relative viewership success, some reality characters have reached a cult celebrity.
Along with lower production costs comes the latitude for a greater variety of reality themes. There’s more likelihood of location scenery, as with the best days of previous National Geographic specials. Some of these have a true educational as well as entertainment value, such as the Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” and “Daily Planet”. One could argue that programs about buying or selling antiques and collector items can be helpful to those of us with some outré stuff in our basements or attics.
However, on the down side, many of the themes seem to be born of fishing at the bottom of the barrel, and seeing what useless, seemingly of interest to participants and their families only, topics. Many of them have a very narrow base of substance, with each episode a minimal variant. Appearing often to be almost spontaneously filmed, it’s clear that a great deal of editing goes into dramatizing the final cut.
Most distressingly, I feel, is the lack of depth or layering in the content. Do you remember when the specialty channel BRAVO was first launched in Canada? One of its mini-features was ‘TV Too Good for TV’. And what were the first two programs rotated in that time slot? “The Prisoner”, the seventeen episode enigmatic foray into man’s survival against dehumanizing forces (from 1967), and “Twin Peaks”, with less than thirty episodes, dealing with murder, madness, and bizarre characters in the Pacific Northwest (1990-91). These were, and are, the kind of programs demanding multiple viewings to absorb the unpeeling of messages, meaning, and subtext. They also typically had effective production values and terrific musical scores.
By contrast, the typical reality show seems hardly worth watching in full once. It should be a warning, that in the short attention span environment of today they have become integral programming.