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Reality at a Crossroads

Reality television has hit an interesting point in its lifespan: maturity. The modern era of televised reality started with MTV’s The Real World in 1992 and exploded when CBS took a big risk on a foreign format called Survivor in 2000. In 2002, Fox imported a little show called Pop Idol from the U.K. and TV has never been the same since.

This year, Fox announced that next season would be Idol’s last. Survivor is headed into its 31st cycle. CBS’ The Amazing Race is a good bet to be named outstanding reality competition show for the 11th time. No wonder the genre feels a little stagnant.

But perhaps it’s because these shows are so big that it feels like they have dominated for so long. The Television Academy only established a category honoring the year’s outstanding reality competition series in 2003.

“In total, reality competition shows have been watched by more people than all of the other nominated shows combined,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC president of alternative and late-night programming.

“In the 12 years that reality competition has been a category, there have been mega-hits like American Idol. The finale of the first season of The Apprentice was watched by 45 million people. How often would you expect that to come along in a 12-year period?”

A massively popular reality competition format hasn’t broken out since NBC’s The Voice in 2011, although networks have tried with shows such as ABC’s Rising Star and Splash, NBC’s Million Second Quiz and CBS’ recent—and controversial—The Briefcase.

Networks are searching for the next big thing, although the process continues to be wearying.

“I think everyone’s afraid right now,” says Sallyann Salsano, who executive produced MTV’s cultural phenomenon Jersey Shore and currently oversees 495 Productions and its many reality shows, including CMT’s Party Down South. “The networks are under so much pressure. You have a relationship with these buyers and your heart is with them. I wish for one year everyone was given a pass to just buy what they thought would work without worrying about the research or anything else.”

“Producers are responsible for evolving the creative process and the genres,” says Philip Segal, CEO and executive producer of FremantleMedia’s company Original Productions. Original produces Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, which was named Outstanding Structured Reality Program last year. “Stagnation comes when we have genres that stick around for eight, nine or ten years,” says Segal. “As creators, I think it is our primary responsibility to continue to be curious and continue to push the envelope to force change.”

While the reality competition shows search for ways to reinvent themselves, the Television Academy last year recognized innovation in another area of reality programming, splitting the category of outstanding reality program into two: structured and unstructured.

Bunim-Murray’s Jon Murray, a member of the Television Academy’s board of governors, led that charge. It’s not the most consumer-friendly category change—it begs the question of what makes a “structured” reality show vs. an “unstructured” one—but it makes perfect sense to producers.

“With structured reality, there’s a format to the show. If you follow the format, it doesn’t matter what time the viewer tunes into the show, when he turns it on he instantly knows where he is in the show. When I’m doing a format show and I’m talking to a network, they want me to hire a producer who knows how to do that kind of structure,” says Murray.

“If you are doing a story about people’s real lives, you really have to follow them in real time,” says Salsano, who knows first-hand what it means to produce an unstructured reality show. “There are days that are easier than others. These 24/7 shows actually require a larger staff. Those shows are the hardest on a production company. They are harder, you spend more, your profit margins are less. There’s literally not a corner to cut.”

Everyone who produces reality shows—whether they are structured, unstructured or competition—faces production challenges. At CBS’ The Amazing Race, the challenge is moving crews and production around the world at a lightning-fast pace to capture all the action and do it beautifully. If you are NBC’s The Voice, the challenge is producing live performance shows that look like the Grammys every time they air.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work but we love it,” says Bertram Von Munster, executive producer of The Amazing Race, which airs in nearly 130 territories worldwide and has locally adapted formats in countries such as China, Israel and Canada. “The show is always original. It never looks like it did the week before. The show is very different in that sense, it’s almost hard to compare it with a show that’s produced in the studio.”

Telegdy, who would love nothing more than to repeat The Voice’s 2013 win for reality-competition, couldn’t agree more.

“I think The Voice is the best reality competition show on TV,” he says. “It’s the highest-rated, it’s incredibly social, it’s a show that celebrates inclusion and creativity not conflict and crazy. In a thousand different tiny ways we are always improving technically, whether that’s lighting, sound or craft.”

The latest reality mega-hit may be just around the corner or years off, but reality producers and networks are continuing to place their bets on the genre.

“We just need to take more swings,” says Salsano. “You can’t have a hit without a swing.”

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.