Unscripted television pushes the limits of reality

For one whole year the newlyweds will live alone in a house, dealing with all the difficulties of being married for the first year. The catch is that the house was built too small and the audience will watch and laugh as the couple attempts to live normal lives, all the while bumping their heads on short ceilings and attempting to make pancakes in pans the size of dimes.

This is actually the real beginning of a commercial for Geico insurance. Yes, laugh at yourself, I know you thought I was actually pitching a new idea for a reality television show because, honestly, it’s as ridiculous as most of the ones on the air today.

Over the past few years, we have watched as more and more reality shows have filled the timeslots in the daily schedules, forcing us to choose between a show with six strangers attempting to live together peacefully or one person trying to pick a husband or wife on the air. The shows have fluctuated between interesting and somewhat entertaining to completely absurd.

Perhaps the biggest problem with reality television these days is any channel can make an unscripted program with almost any type of theme. It seems as though the networks are so desperate to make money without having to hire all the different writers and high-profile actors, that they will resort to any storyline.

In addition, repeats are created every moment. Over the past few years, there have been at least two different versions of “The Bachelor” on the air, including “Joe Millionaire” and “The Bachelorette,” each attempting to play matchmaker. Coincidentally, only one of the couples out of all these knock-offs has actually lasted.

Steve Sternberg, executive vice-president and Director of Audience Analysis of Magna Global, measures audiences for programs in which clients buy advertising. According to him, the repeat shows cause people to be split between what they want to watch, which in turn lower ratings.

“There’s simply a shakeout going on – when you have multiple reality shows on in a single night or opposite one another, they simply split a limited audience – this is particularly true for the newer shows, most of which are simply imitations or spins on what has already been done better,” he said.

At this point, it seems networks will try to bank on anything to make a profit, regardless of whether the idea seems ridiculous or actually worthwhile. Trying to bank on the popularity of “American Idol,” the WB launched its own show last May called “Superstar USA.” The show basically followed the rules of the original FOX hit with one small twist – the judges would actually choose the worst singer to be the winner and later reveal that he or she actually cannot sing.

Not only is this show pretty much a copy of “American Idol,” it is actually quite mean. At least with Simon Cowell’s harsh yet true comments, audiences are given the truth and contestants are not provided with false hopes of stardom.

“The networks always copy what works,” Sternberg said.

This is actually a very telling comment and somewhat sad in its connotation that because of the success of certain shows, other networks may keep pushing reality television on the air.

Almost every mainstream cable channel as well as the national networks have banked on the success of reality television, using such programming to replace season flops and break up the incessant repeats over the summer.

“Reality shows have proved to be very effective counter-programming to both comedies and dramas,” Sternberg said. “They are also seen as a relatively inexpensive way to replace summer repeats.”

But despite this, they have become too heavily relied upon in the mainstream. Some of the newest shows are utterly stupid, teetering on the absurd.

Recently, CBS premiered “The Will,” a show in which people battle to win a man’s inheritance after he dies. I hope your mouth is as wide as mine was when I heard about this. First of all, the man is not dead and these people, not all of whom are family, are fighting for his money.

Secondly, who would think of a show like this? A person’s inheritance is something he values and saves for his closest family and in this show, some of the contestants include his step son’s ex-girlfriend and the man who cares for his horses. Gee, if getting an inheritance was that easy – no, I can’t bring myself to finish that sentence.

In addition to the asinine plots and people who can easily earn their 15 minutes of fame is the manipulation of so-called “celebrities.” “The Simple Life” stars Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, who are only celebrities because of their families’ fortunes. In this season, they are taking on internships throughout the Northeast and trying not to be fired. I watched one episode as the girls worked at a mechanic shop and actually drove one of the cars that had been brought in to a store and proceeded to try and buy something, promising they would pay two hours later, after they received payment from their job. And I will not believe anyone who says the reason the clerk let them get away with it wasn’t because of their status in society.

Even Martha Stewart, who is currently serving time in prison, is developing her own reality show. All I can say is, where is the integrity when we allow convicted criminals to advance their star power by developing a reality program?

Fortunately for viewers, it seems that scripted television is finally making a comeback. With scripted shows such as “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” becoming breakaway hits this season, reality programming has begun to take a dive in ratings.

“Viewers by and large are tiring of the cheap reality clones and more gratuitous entries like ‘Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search.’ They also seem to be tiring of the humiliation-type shows and relationship shows in favor of makeover shows,” Sternberg said. “(In addition), now that some scripted dramas have succeeded, we’ll probably see a shift away from reality next season.”

I truly hope Sternberg is right and people will finally realize that most reality programming is simply a way to make stars out of ordinary people. As one woman explained as she was dismissed from “American Idol” after being told she couldn’t sing, she had simply entered the competition to have her few, and very brief, moments of fame.