With nearly 600 reality series aired since 2000, new report examines how it changed TV and us
Just try to avoid unscripted series on TV for a day, and you'll see how pervasive they've become in just 10 years' time.
But it took a real couch potato hero like Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart to actually do the math.
In an ambitious project looking at reality TV's impact over the last decade, Barnhart concluded that television will have aired nearly 600 reality TV shows in prime time by the end of this year. That's if you mark the start of reality TV's rule over the small screen with the debut in 2000 of Who Wants to Marry a Mutli-Millionaire? and CBS' ongoing exercise in exotic deprivation, Survivor.
The critic spent months visiting the sets of different unscripted shows and talking with experts ranging from documentarian Ken Burns to four-time reality series "star" Bethenny Frankel, unraveling the compelling questions of why this format has worked so well, and how it is affecting all of us.
Burns, known for painstakingly assembled documentary films on uniquely American subjects such as baseball and jazz, had a quick answer for Barnhart: "This is not reality," he said. "Nobody eats bugs in front of millions of people. Nobody proposes or checks people out in front of millions of people. The notion that this is reality is beyond the pale. And what it does is become a vehicle for the same shallow consumerist mentality that is driving our country into the dirt."
My own theory: Television's need for quick, shocking cheap programming met young audiences' needs for a new form and media technology's new ability to make the personal public.
Put more simply, low-rated cable channels and financially squeezed TV networks needed low cost programming that could hold the young viewers advertisers love. As that audience got bored with scripted situation comedies, the demand for something that seemed more unpredictable and genuine led to a world where watching a man claim to pick his fiancee on national television seemed not only reasonable, but fairly entertaining.
Factor in the rise of technology that has turned everyone into a potential media brand -- in a flash you can post a video on YouTube or build a Facebook page that catches the world's attention -- and you have legions of aspiring participants hoping to make a version of their real lives profitable fodder for an exploding genre.
The Daily Beast revealed how profitable that move can be, unveiling a list of the top-earning reality TV stars, which included Kim Kardashian at the top with $6-million earned this year, Hills star Lauren Conrad second at $5-million and Frankel third with $4-million
(The only two guys in the top 10 were the biggest male stars of Jersey Shore; editors factored out shows where participants showed some sort of talent to participate, leaving out American Idol's Simon Cowell, for example).
Click here to see the online home for Aaron's amazing work, which includes video clips, web extras and a host of great stories.