The Predicability of Reality TV

24Sep07

In an article from Advertising Age about pursuing cross-media branding & product integration in Dancing with the Stars, I was struck by the following quotation:

One reason for the fascination with the reality game shows is that they tend to play out the same way, episode after episode. “Week in and week out, you know what a reality show is going to look like,” said Fred Dubin, managing partner-director of entertainment marketing and promotions at Mediaedge:cia, the WPP Group media-buying firm that works for both Macy’s and AT&T. “In a scripted show, while the characters are the same and there is the same basic storyline, when special episodes are going to run, that may change, and you don’t have that kind of volatility” in the reality genre.

Reality is predictable and formulaic while scripted programming is volatile and uncertain? Say what now? Sure, I get what he means – reality game shows have tightly constrained norms and formats, so expectations are managed & variables are controlled. But it seems like the whole selling point for reality TV was that these shows were by nature unpredictable – real people’s performances and actions don’t follow scripts and thus anything can happen. The parallel here is sports – yes, every football game will play out the same way week-after-week, with four quarters and regular events like scoring, turnovers, etc., but the exact combination & effect of these variables is unknown.

I’m just surprised to see such a quotation presented as self-evident without any challenge or questioning of the odd irony here. It seems like an acknowledgment that the “reality” in reality TV is ultimately less of a wildcard than a simple variable to be controlled & regularized by production routines. Whereas those writers, nobody knows what they’re going to do next!



2 Responses to “The Predicability of Reality TV”

  1. That is an odd quote, but I don’t find the industry’s recognition that reality shows are predictable as odd as the notion that “narrative” TV is not. Is he saying that the networks don’t have control over when a “special” episode will air? If I’m not mistaken, then aren’t clip shows usually part of the contracts that established personalities sign when the re-up? If so, then I’d think the powers that be have some idea as to how the season will play out beforehand. If this is his position, then his problem seems to be with programmers more than the creative talent yet I’m certain his comment is aimed at the creative types.

    In that light, I think that you’ve really hit the nail on the head when you note the volatility of the relationship between writers and the larger industry. This quote obviously has more to do with the industry’s desire to cut creative costs in an effort to increase profitability than it has to the with the relative (un)predictability of narrative versus non-narrative TV programs.

    In short, this statement seems to represent one more way that the powers that be are failing to recognize how the writers have established the basic structure that most television programs emulate. Even in arguably complex narratives there usually exists an underlying formula for the plot structure(s) and these formulas have crept into reality TV as these programs have adopted common storytelling strategies. In short, the reality programs learned to be predictable from narrative TV’s successes. In other words, the writers paved the trail that reality producers continue to follow.

  2. Briefly (’cause I’m home fighting a mysterious stomach bug), I think what’s happened is that, after all the hand-wringing about reality TV in the first half of this decade, the form is now perceived as having “settled down” to more routine and less fireworks. The shows themselves are mostly the same (save for much fewer Joe Millionaire type stunt shows, which were all the rage circa 2003), but they’re now pretty normative.

    In contrast, the resurgence of serialized shows has seemed much less stable, in terms of both ratings and spin in the press. Yes, as Jason and others have demonstrated, the much-discussed “loss” of Lost viewers last season was overblown, but the perception of such did create an atmosphere around the show and network. You could say the same for responses to (for example) Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, 24, and many other serialized shows of the past two or three seasons; i.e., one day they’re “hot,” and then a couple of “off” episodes, and it’s all “what’s wrong? what’s happened?”

    Similarly, all the various format changes this year (holding back the season till February, no reruns; padding out the run with a parallel narrative line (Heroes), etc.), are being seen with mucho anxiety and wait-and-see amongst TPTB at the networks and advertisers.

    Again, by contrast, excepting the odd Sanjay or off-screen controversy, most reality shows are rightly regarded as “stable,” episode to episode, within their seasons. I rarely watch Idol, but each time I do, I have to grant that they’ve got that show (for what it is) down to as well-oiled a TV machine as you’ll ever see. No futzing about with Izzy and George there.


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