The major networks just hosted another upfront week, and once again there was an uninvited guest.
That would be reality TV, arguably primetime’s dominant genre, ratings-wise, conspicuous by its absence.
More than a decade after “Survivor” and “Big Brother” ushered in the modern unscripted era, such programming still remains an outcast — treated at the upfronts a bit like the wife in “Jane Eyre.” Everyone knows it’s vital to the story, but during most presentations, it’s kept safely locked out of view.
If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider the following: The five English-language broadcasters presented 28 new series for fall. Of those, only two were unscripted: “The X Factor,” Fox’s long-in-the-works Eve to “American Idol’s” Adam; and “H8R,” a CW companion to “America’s Next Top Model.”
Does anybody really think reality TV is going to account for just 7% of the networks’ new programs next season?
Yet this annual sleight-of-hand routine continues, as media buyers — who look younger every year — play along. It would almost be like the Lakers starting Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and three middle-aged guys from the local playground. While the non-pros might generate goodwill before tipoff, let’s face it, they’re not going to stay in the game long before the likes of what’s-his-name, Mr. Khloe Kardashian, replaces them.
Even reality’s notes of industry validation almost invariably come with small indignities attached. The Hollywood Radio and Television Society, for example, hosted a panel featuring unscripted “hitmakers.” Except moderator Larry King clearly hadn’t seen most of the shows and didn’t appear to have a clue at times as to what the producers were talking about.
Factions within the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences have long seemed conflicted about granting reality a full seat at the Emmy table — isn’t this the genre that enables amateurs and wannabes to cost them jobs by gobbling up valuable real estate? — but the savvier ones sound resigned. Besides, the broadcasters who carry the awards have abandoned TV movies and would much rather see “Survivor’s” Jeff Probst at the podium than the star of HBO’s latest prestigious but little-seen docudrama.
Eventually, one would think the reality producers networks rely upon so heavily would demand more respect. The academy has tapped Mark Burnett — no shrinking violet — to produce this year’s Emmys, though he might be dogged in part by memories of the 2008 ceremony, which featured a quintet of reality hosts and was panned by critics.
Certainly, the TV-covering media has embraced unscripted programming, through a combination of genuine affection, practicality and having any lingering objections worn down. Complaining about a reality show being staged or feeling fake at this point feels like a waste of time. Better to simply review what’s on the screen than try to expose the artifice involved.
In addition, outlets eager to deliver Web traffic and younger audiences can’t exactly turn their noses up at the one genre that consistently attracts both in impressive numbers. Sure, “Chuck” might have its loyalists, but it’s much easier to start a water-cooler conversation around “Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.”
The latest blow to reality’s image, meanwhile, came from an unexpected quarter — namely, politics. Sarah Palin’s dalliance with TLC and Donald Trump’s flirtation with a presidential run both elicited scorn from the usual suspects, who could sneer about a “reality TV star” aspiring to the Oval Office. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, for one, delighted in asserting that Trump’s political ambitions were every bit as bogus as his NBC show.
Nevertheless, it’s surprising to see reality temporarily jettisoned to second-class status whenever May rolls around. Like their scripted brethren, the genre’s creative titans have egos (some bigger than others) and doubtless would like to be recognized for their all-star-level ratings contributions, as opposed to just being the relief pitcher grudgingly summoned when the starter’s arm gives out.
Until then, each spring reality takes its place in an over-sized closet — overlooked, perhaps, but no less indispensable.
And despite the fiction of keeping reality in the shadows as networks seek to present the most saleable lineups, if recent history is any indication, they won’t stay hidden for long.