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Reality Bites: TV Genre Looking for a Shot of Adrenaline

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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