Genre's honesty evokes love-hate affair
Reality TV is the genre everybody loves to hate and — even more — loves to watch. The criticisms are many — showcasing the worst in human nature, delighting in other people’s failure — but tell that to the legion of fans who voted during this year’s “American Idol” finals.
Those involved in creating some of the most popular reality shows say some of the criticism comes from uneasiness with some of television’s requirements.
“No one wants to talk about this but if you’re going to be on television, the way you look on television is important,” says Donald Trump, host of “The Apprentice” and co-producer of an upcoming reality show featuring Martha Stewart. “Being attractive is an important part of being a good reality show contestant and that makes most people uncomfortable because most of them are not attractive, unfortunately.”
Others think the category struggles just as hard against conventional expectations of what a narrative television show should be. While the genre has overcome resistance from networks and cable channels, respect from broadcasters had to be earned by such shows as MTV’s “The Real World.”
“The backlash was really among programmers because they had a hard time accepting this as a way to tell stories at first,” says Jonathan Murray, co-creator of “The Real World,” which debuted in 1992 and is still running. “In the case of ‘The Real World,’ it was different than anything that had come before it — the cast was always changing, the location was always changing and the situations were always changing and it took us time to convince people this was going to work. Audiences responded to it right away.”
Audiences and critics are not alone in their shock at some show contestants’ behavior. Sometimes it even surprises the host. “Everyone is nervous when they first come into the boardroom for the first couple of hours but then after a little while they forget the cameras are even there and they become very relaxed,” says Trump. “I would even say they become too comfortable with things and forget themselves. I really can’t believe some of the things I’ve seen them do while the cameras are right there.”
Still, it’s the raw, uncensored look at people in challenging, intense situations that makes for the best drama and the most compelling television, according to some.
“The truth is that the audience loves heroes and they love villains,” says “Survivor” producer Tom Shelly. “And when you put people into a pressured situation your real character emerges. Not everyone is OK with that. I don’t think that criticism will ever go away but I don’t think people will ever get bored with seeing people overcome amazing obstacles either.”