It started with “cheap.”
The proliferating new cable stations were desperate for inexpensive programming to fill out their schedules. Why did it have to be inexpensive? Because, when they got started, cable stations drew significantly smaller audiences, meaning their commensurate advertising revenues could only subsidize shows costing the bare minimum to produce.
MTV, which made its name originally with music videos, wanted to diversify its repertoire. I can imagine a conference room, a long table surrounded by MTV executives wracking their brains to come up with series that would be popular but involve rock bottom expenditures.
“We’re spitballing here. Say out whatever comes into your mind.”
“Okay. Me and my roommates are always fighting. What if we created a show about people sharing an apartment and we watch them go at it? Argue. Hook up. Debate the current issues of the day…”
“I like it. Except for the last part.” 0
And from that inspiration in 1992 came, at least to my recollection, the first reality series – The Real World.
Cheap beyond imagination. The participants got a pittance compared to what professional actors might command. The production values were “Nachos.” The script, non-existent, so (theoretically) no writers (or at least no writers getting union minimums.) And the film crew, skeletal.
As it turned out, The Real World hit the proverbial bulls-eye.
Popular and cheap.
The “Reality Concept” was not new to television, although its original incarnations were documentaries invariably aired on Sunday afternoons, when (pre the football explosion) nobody was watching, allowing the networks to report they had fulfilled their mandated obligations to public service.
And that is primarily what documentaries were in those days – a public service, concerning a serious issue that only people watching television on Sunday afternoons were interested in. (Though the rest of us probably should have been.)
The most famous purveyor of meaningful documentaries was Edward R. Murrow, most notably with his “Harvest of Shame” (1960), concerning the terrible plight of migrant laborers in America.
“Harvest of Shame” was a real documentary about a serious, existing issue. The Real
World, by contrast was akin to deliberately starting a fire and then chronicling the
“We caught a break! They are trapped in the inferno!”
Except the Real World version, involving hissy fits, rather than fire.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Which is better than getting behind myself but not much. (Note To Myself: Consider if “getting behind yourself” has any actual meaning whatsoever.)
With the proliferation of cable, the “Big Three” networks were hit with the “double-whammy” of skyrocketing costs for their scripted programming and unprecedented competition. Their tactical decision:
“We may be flourishing (despite complaining to Congress that we’re not), but we’re not stupid. Reality television for us too.”
And hello “Big Brother”, “The Bachelor”, and a lot of other shows I have never watched but a lot of other people do, reality television conforming to the fundamental dictum:
“Popular and Cheap.”
I read recently that today, documentaries – which started out as reality shows with a conscience but have morphed into being about anything that happens – are more popular than ever. These programs continue to be cheaper to produce, and as exemplified by HBO’s recent The Jinx, can be big winners can at attracting the eyeballs.
Speaking as a man who has never seen it, to my second-hand understanding, The Jinx is about this really rich guy who is believed to have murdered some people but who has, so far, not been incarcerated.
Money and murder – that always draws a crowd.
But it is a long way from “Harvest of Shame.”
Reality Television of this nature goes a step beyond “Based on Actual Events” – they are the actual events themselves. Such programming is understandably popular. Which would you rather watch – a fictional mini-series about a murder or six episodes about the genuine article?
The question now is, “Which genuine article?” In the report about the increase in documentary popularity, it was mentioned that two serious-minded documentary series on PBS were being moved from their plum scheduling time slots onto the periphery. Introducing the inevitable issue of “topical escalation”, and ultimately – who knows – possible deception.
How long, imagines this writer, before we are presented with a documentary that appears real but was actually made up? There have been numerous exposes concerning the egregious conditions in slaughterhouses so they probably don’t need to do this. But what if they made a real-looking documentary on the subject that was intentionally faked?
DOCUMENTARIAN: Can you slaughter them less humanely?
SLAUGHTERHOUSE OWNER: I guess so.
A COW: (OVERHEARING) Really?
A PIG: Hey, it’s great television!
That’s more than deliberately starting the fire. That’s starting the fire and locking the firefighters inside the inferno.
It started with “cheap.” My concern is that it will end where it inevitably ends.
With a clamoring for “more.”
Followed immediately by giving the customers what they want.