Reality Bites: TV Genre Looking for a Shot of Adrenaline

Utopia Reality Television innovations
Courtesy of Fox

Don’t expect surprises when Emmy nominations and winners are announced in reality TV. The genre has seen no major hits and a few big thuds this past season, and with “American Idol” winding down, some folks are worried. “Reality television desperately needs new formats,” says Susanne Daniels, president of MTV programming. “I say that both as a viewer and an executive.” She adds with a laugh, “I wish I knew what they were!”

Since the reality explosion 15 years ago, viewers have overdosed on the familiar templates. Most agree that reality needs new formats — or innovations to the old ones. Lee Metzger of Crosshair Entertainment points out that the problem is not unique: Scripted series are basically using variations on formulas that date back to the 1950s. Similarly, “In reality TV, the formats themselves are working — it’s the approach that needs to be updated.”

He speaks with authority, since “The Voice” accomplished exactly that. Despite other singing competitions (e.g., Fox’s “American Idol”), NBC’s “The Voice” (in photo above) became a mega-hit with a few twists — notably, spinning red chairs and coaches instead of judges. Metzger believes the latter factor is key to the series’ success.

“The coaches are passionate and their criticism is always constructive,” he says, adding that the positive emotions are “pretty uplifting” for viewers.

Reality itself could use some uplifting. This past year, there were costly disappointments like Fox’s “Utopia” and creative jaw-droppers like “Neighbors With Benefits” (A&E), “Botched” (E!), “Born in the Wild” (Lifetime), “Dating Naked” (VH1) and “Sex Box” (WE tv).

The season also gave reasons for optimism. “Utopia” offered innovations that could pay off for future series, like 24/7 access for viewers and new platforms.

“The Quest” also offers hope. ABC ran 10 episodes last summer, and ratings weren’t great. But according to execs at production company Court Five, the series’ social media following grew an amazing 23% in the four months following the finale. Also defying conventional wisdom: The fans continue to watch the show in reruns (via Quest Rewatch and Netflix).

“Quest,” which mixed fantasy elements with an unscripted competition, suggests that reality may have life beyond the traditional Nielsens. Metzger says, “Everyone is trying to crack the second-screen element in social media; that’s probably going to be a bigger part in how many reality shows work.” He also offers the ideas that the genre can be juiced up with live-event programming — a factor that NBC is emphasizing this fall — and maybe shorter runs.

Daniels and MTV are also mixing genres. “Greatest Party Story Ever” blends animation with footage of individuals relating anecdotes of epic parties. The cabler is also hoping to tap into different audiences by recruiting stars from Vine or YouTube, such as “Todrick” (of Todrick Hall). And they’re sprucing up existing shows, having seen ratings climb in the 29th and 30th seasons of reality pioneer “The Real World.”

Eden Gaha, president of unscripted TV for Endemol Shine, cites “MasterChef Junior” (starting its fourth season) as an example of how to breathe life into an existing genre (after the 2010 “Masterchef”).

He also thinks the company’s “The Island” offers clues on where the genre is going: back to basics. The Bear Grylls-hosted summer series shows 14 men working to survive with limited tools. There’s no competition, and the 14 shot the entire show themselves; it’s simply about surviving. “We’re going back to what reality is: The stakes are real and it’s not ‘produced,’ per se. It’s what we saw 12 years ago, with shows like ‘Big Brother,’ where it doesn’t feel hands of producer are all over the show; it feels real and authentic,” says Gaha.

In other words, the future of reality may mean returning to reality. What a concept.

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  1. nara tims says:

    Take these reality shows off the air, it creates the progressive educated graduates the ideas they can do the same attitudes in real life.

    We need to have a giant king-of-the-hill, all the reality shows compete against each other, the loser TV show gets canceled for ever.
    The final winning show gets to compete against real live terrorists.

    If the show wins, that show gets a ten year guaranteed network contract.

  2. Brother Rob says:

    The Quest is criminally underrated, but if need a dose of reality adrenaline check out THE CHAIR in the reality competition category, Starz’s meta filmmaking experiment following two first time directors starting with the same script and same budget in making their debut movies. Some insiders might find it talky in the beginning but Episode 109 and 110 are as good as any hour of unscripted TV last year (109 is the episode that won Anthony B. Sacco the DGA award for reality achievement). There are no commercial breaks, no host and no voice over narration. The Chair has also been nominated for the television critics association award and is 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. CHECK IT OUT GOLD DERBY VOTERS.

  3. Dunstan says:

    Some years ago, I came up with a saying about so-called “reality TV:” There’s reality and there’s TV and one thing has nothing to do with the other.

  4. Christina says:

    “The Quest” is the most under-rated show to ever hit television. It didn’t get the advertising it deserved and was sometimes replaced by football to the chagrin of its fans. I watch reruns of “The Quest” because the story line makes it feel like an epic movie and not a long drawn out ego fest. Many fans in the Quest Army have stated that their favorite part of the show, other than the fantasy theme, was the lack of back stabbing that is idolized in most reality shows. The contestants had actual camaraderie and purpose and humility, even the supposed “bad guy”. Maybe that’s the fresh edge reality TV needs? Besides, how could you not love watching people learn to ride real horses, swing real swords, and shoot real arrows all while on a quest to save an entire realm? On top of that. The lack of a cash prize (any prize really) and the dedication to seek out who among them showed the best characteristics of humanity makes it a true family show. It’s release to Netfilx and the sudden spike in the fan base proves how awesome this shows rating could have been had it been given a fair shake.

  5. For an example of how “The Quest” affected its viewership, please check out our Facebook Group (above), where we have been discussing all kinds of topics related to and extracted from the series. We are very passionate about the positive messages that were exemplified on “The Quest”, a reality show very much the opposite of conventional “reality shows”. We are so passionate about a new season that a petition was also created (and we encourage all readers to sign it, too!): The Quest Army has become more than a “social media” entity; it has become family to us. The interactions between cast, crew, producers, and fans is unequalled in any social media circles. We have had “hangouts” with special guests (people associated with the show) and fans, which you can find here: Please take some time and visit the links – you may be glad you did! Sincerely, David Patterson, Founder of The Quest Army Facebook Group, Author of The Petition to Renew The Quest, and occasional panelist for Joff and Rebecca Brown’s Quest Army Hangouts!

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