New Wave of Exotic Subcultures Takes Hold of Unscripted Series

Subcultures on Reality Television
Ward Sutton for Variety

In January 2010, Linda Ong, president of Brooklyn-based firm Truth Co. noticed a curious parallel between the ratings for the season 1 finale of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and “Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief,” which aired on the same cabler days after the devastating 7.0 quake ravaged the Caribbean nation.

“Both of those shows got (about) 3.2 million viewers,” recalls Ong, former senior vice president of marketing for Oxygen Media. “It was odd that two seemingly diametrically opposed shows would get the same number of viewers.”

Ong set out to examine what was transpiring in global culture that would allow these two “polar opposite” television events — one a telethon, the other a sensationalized glimpse into the lives of self-professed “Guidos”— to break through the clutter.

“My first jaded instinct is to say there’s just as many low-brow individuals in the world as there are people that are concerned about real issues,” says Ong. “Of course, that’s a very cynical way of looking at things, but it’s also really interesting, because one show is narcissism at its height and the other has a philanthropic bent.”

But one thing was sure: “Jersey” had taken root in our pop cultural vocabulary.

Truth Co.’s newly completed study “Truth Culture Decoder: Reinventing Reality, 8th edition” concluded that the 2008 economic collapse created an environment ripe for series like “Jersey Shore.” Like the Haiti quake, the catastrophic financial downfall shook things up. No longer interested in no-longer-novel sociological experiments that tossed together individuals from divergent backgrounds (i.e. “The Real World,” “Big Brother”), audiences were now fascinated by what Ong terms “exotic subcultures.”

“Suddenly, not only did you have the Guidos but you had the drag queens and the little people and the Mormons and the Amish, which we’d never seen before in any media,” says Ong. “Subcultures were marginalized in the pre-collapse era, they were considered freaky, but now they were being celebrated.”

Representing more than just our collective fascination with vapidity, beer brawls and JWoww’s heaving bosom, “Jersey Shore” signaled the beginning of what Ong calls “emergent” reality TV, smallscreen fare lacking a competition angle — “the reality competition model is one of the most calcified,” she says — but one where the cast drives the dramatic (and often comedic) tension.
It’s a trend that, according to Ong and many others in the biz, is experiencing a steady upward swing.

“(Emergent) reality TV is definitely a trend in the experimental space,” says Howard Schultz, president of Lighthearted Entertainment, the company behind MTV’s “Are You the One?” and VH1’s “Dating Naked,” series that strip bare (literally in the latter instance) the proverbial mating dance. “I think the experiment phase is one that will continue for a while because it’s about having human beings grow from the experience.”

Case in point: both “Dating Naked” and “Are You the One?” have not only been renewed for follow-up seasons, but one couple on “Are You the One?” is prepping for a baby while another on “Naked” just got hitched by a shaman at (naturally) an all-naked wedding.

Tom Forman, CEO of Relativity Television, “half agrees” that the emergent model will fill the airwaves, pointing to the differences between broadcast and cable as a much bigger factor in what types of reality series succeed and which ones fail.

“The reality shows that have worked on cable and that I think will continue on cable are the docuseries that provide a voyeuristic window into a certain world,” says Forman, who has most recently set up edgy British format “Sex Box” at WeTV for American audiences.
“Maybe you want to be a part of it or maybe you’re horrified by it, but that’s what fills the cable airwaves. So far that kind of verite hasn’t worked on broadcast television.”

Per Tara Long, senior VP of alternative U.S. programming at eOne, what never goes out of style in the reality space, regardless of the format, is “drama, drama, drama.”

“The trend is not your traditional yelling, throwing a drink and calling someone names,” says Long. “Rather, it’s drama with good storytelling and that’s rooted in giving characters stakes so there’s a purpose to them fighting. You’re always going to need some sort of drama to keep people tuned in and that bar of drama keeps getting higher and higher and higher.”

It’s the drama that can, no doubt, be credited for the survival of two reality shows that have successfully weathered America’s economic crisis: E!’s “Keeping up With the Kardashians” and Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise.

“Pre-collapse it was all about the lifestyles of the rich and famous — the glamour, the success, the bling,” says Ong.

“After the collapse, it became more of a sociological investigation of how the collapse was affecting the 1%. Take ‘Housewives of New Jersey,’ for example: Teresa (Giudice) and her husband are now going to jail.

“The women on (the ‘Housewives’ shows) all had to go to work, whether it was (creating) a bag line or a line of swimwear. They’re all working and making money. The shows were able to shift with the times. Shows that act like we’re still in 2007 before things went south just feel dated and out of touch.”

For more information on TruthCo. visit their website.

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