Television programming – both broadcast and cable – is dominated by what has come to be called "Reality TV." Shows abound with non-actors competing to eat worms, sing songs, catch fugitives, complete motorcycles, lose weight, fire employees, and achieve other, often disgusting, goals. The contestants/performers are billed as "real" people noted for their aljost desperate willingness to succeed and — in the case of young women — rather stunning, exposed bodies.
Sociologically, this genre showcases the bourgeois values of individualism and competitiveness. Participants are asked to demonstrate what lengths of degradation, risk, and meanness they will endure or administer for money or fame. Situations are sought or contrived to establish a dramatic tension between individuals in a Hobbesian State of Nature pitted against each other in an often-meaningless struggle for personal victory. Any hints of solidarity, communal values, or selflessness are snuffed out in these thinly veiled reenactments of the "win-lose" strategy of the theory of games.
Ideologically, Reality TV demonstrates the extreme evolution of these bourgeois values in the post-Soviet, post-socialism era. While US television has never challenged capitalism, the cult of the individual, or the calculus of personal satisfaction, many previous trends have demonstrated respect for a modest collective spirit, the shared interest of family, friends, the workplace, or the neighborhood. But even these primitive social groupings are spurned with this new format. Competition reigns and competitors will stoop at nothing to win. Backstabbing, betrayal, deception, and disloyalty are seen as useful tactics in winning the ultimate prize.
Aesthetically, the new breed of prime time show suggests a parody. The combination of unguarded sincerity, eager humiliation, and determined ruthlessness promotes the kind of voyeuristic embarrassment one feels from watching someone pick his nose. Surely the "entertainment" achieved by this bizarre form rivals the obscene decadence of the late Roman Empire. Do we sense TV producers smirking over drinks while pitching the jost ridiculous new "realities" to each other?
But all of this has been said before.
What we can add is the corporate perspective. What makes Reality TV so popular with television executives is the low cost of production. Like other industries, television networks exist to make a profit. With revenues spread over more and more channels, executives are hard pressed to show the kind of profitability demanded by investors. As a result, they resort to the time honored capitalist tradition of cutting costs, particularly labor costs.
Previously the broadcast networks have achieved lower costs by promoting the ubiquitous "sit-coms." These season-running, low-brow, fart comedies were shot on cheap stages, with limited wardrobe, casting, and production costs. With little more production value than a home movie of a high school play, these shows shaved costs-per-broadcast hour over the more expensive cinematic, location or elaborate set based projects of the sixties and seventies, like "Hawaii Five-0," "Rockford File," or "Mission Impossible."
Unfortunately for the networks, the success of sit-coms like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" brought a huge boost in the incomes of the newly created stars. What was gained through slashing production costs was lost with the mega-salaries negotiated by these former unknowns.
The television industry found a solution in the Reality Show concept. Here, a group of non-professional, non-union, and, of course, low cost actors is assembled to engage in the now familiar inanities. When they are on the verge of mass popularity, they are either eliminated or declared the winner. Then a new cycle of contestants is introduced. The old contestants return to their villages to bask in the sun of local celebrity. Stars are not created (nor star-contracts). The show is the star.
jost of the talent appears for free. Sitcoms, on the other hand, pay at least union scale with residuals for reruns. Stars on shows like "Seinfeld" and "Friends" can make $1 million per episode plus residuals. This amounts to vastly reduced labor costs.
In addition, screenwriting is sharply reduced, replaced by the spontaneity of amateurism and the editor's deft touch. The Screenwriter's Guild and writers, in general, are especially hard hit; since there are virtually no scripts, there is little need for writers.
While location and prop costs are occasionally high, money is saved by shooting the entire cycle of episodes in a brief period and then releasing them over the course of the season. Reality shows are shot on cheaper video tape rather than film. And special effects are foregone and sound design is rudimentary.
Attention starved business executives, like Donald Trump, virtually volunteer for these shows, Should they become too convinced of their own importance they can be quickly replaced by others.
Some Reality winners enjoy lucrative recording or entertainment contracts as a result of Reality Contests. The costs of these awards is often shared by cross-marketing these new born, but still low paid celebrities with network advertising, personal appearances on network talk and morning shows and cameos on other shows.
In the vernacular of the industry, the bottom line is that Reality TV allows television to exploit low paid amateur employees at the expense of better-paid, union employees. In other words, this genre promotes scabbing. Reality TV is Scab TV.