There was a time before housewives were Real, before Honey Boo Boo sipped her first go-go juice, when the only unscripted programming on television was game shows. Then in 1992, The Real World debuted on MTV, introducing America to seven 20-somethings in an apartment in New York City, subtracting responsibilities, and adding a camera crew. Inspired in part by Candid Camera—arguably the series’ only predecessor to put civilians in the spotlight without offering them a prize (or taking them away in handcuffs)—The Real World was the first show to document “what happens when people stop being polite, and start being real.” It would spawn hundreds of imitators and change the face of television forever.
It's a particularly apt time to look back at reality TV’s evolution, as the 30th season of Survivor is set to premiere tonight on CBS. Its contemporary, The Real World, is also in the midst of its 30th season, with a reboot based in Chicago that brings “skeletons” from stars’ pasts—exes, former roommates—into each episode to amplify the drama.
So how did we get to a place where whole networks focus their airtime almost exclusively on “normals” doing not-so-normal things? Where Bravo, founded in 1980 as an “ad-free net[work] focused on the arts,” is now handing out contracts not just to celebrities, but also to the people who style them?
Survivor's first season was an explosive hit: Its finale in 2000 drew 51.7 million viewers, making it the second most-watched show that year, just below the Super Bowl.
I asked Max Dawson, who not only will be a contestant on the upcoming season of Survivor, but taught a class at Northwestern University about the show. Dawson traces the genre's genesis to technologies emerging in the late 1980s and early '90s that created a "perfect storm," opening the door for this new, unscripted concept centered on non-celebrities.
“Satellite cable, the DVR, and the Internet impacted how and what viewers watch,” Dawson says. “Loosening of FCC regulations during the 1980s and 1990s shifted the balance of power in the industry from the broadcast networks to niche cable channels. Reality shows like Survivor and American Idol and Dancing With the Stars had emerged as a necessity in this new competitive landscape” as viewers ate up the new, novel reality content while increasingly migrating to niche networks for more of their entertainment needs.
Survivor's first season was an explosive hit: Its finale in 2000 drew 51.7 million viewers, making it the second most-watched show that year, just below the Super Bowl. Networks, thrilled with the uptick in viewership, pandered, reproducing the model at a fast clip. Today, Dawson says the TV industry is indisputably “largely dominated by reality TV.”
That’s had a positive but unintended consequence for scripted programs, according to Dr. Zizi Papacharissi, professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago. If you love the heavily produced quality of big-budget epics like Game of Thrones, you might have Bethany Frankel to thank for it—sort of. As subscription services like HBO or Netflix gain traction in the new climate of on-demand TV-watching, “we are seeing high-quality production migrate there,” Papacharissi says. “This is changing the nature of network programming, but also the form of cinema, which is beginning to delve into more experimental directions.” With viewers voting for quality content by subscribing and tuning in, reality TV, cheap to cast and to produce, is an easy way to fill airtime.
"The shows impose ideas on participants, but also on [the] audience—that your best resource is yourself, your own image and your capacity to control it.”
Papacharissi and her peers—including Dawson, who got hooked on Survivor in 2006 and earned his Ph.D. in 2008—are part of a new wave of academics focused on studying and legitimizing the oft-maligned genre. Dawson says the subject demands scholarship in light of the major changes it’s provoked in the industry, and as a matter of practicality. Reality TV isn’t going anywhere, he says, and universities are beginning to take it seriously.
“The majority of my undergraduates weren't moving to L.A. [to] write the next hit sitcom or direct the next great American film. They were moving to L.A. to fetch coffee on the set of The Biggest Loser,” Dawson says of the rationale behind his class. "I wanted to educate my students about the industry that they'd be working in when they finished their degrees. And that is an industry that is largely dominated by reality TV.”
As for being in front of the camera, Dawson says he was most surprised by the emotional toll of a weeks-long exile with his co-stars. America’s sweethearts, they are not. Reality TV contestants aren’t chosen for their level-headedness or talent, but “on account of the fact that they exhibit narcissism, exhibitionism, or any other number of personality disorders that make for good television,” he says.
While Dawson emphasizes that the ordeal is physically exhausting as well, he says, “The emotional hardships that contestants face might be even more formidable than the physical ones.... To say it’s difficult would be to put it mildly.”
Another unintended side effect of reality TV’s ubiquity is the changing face of the TV star. Where appearances by established celebrities once set the tone of a television series, today the shows themselves are a mechanism for fame, an incentive desirable enough to offset frequent and major personal PR disasters.
The fixation with being catapulted from obscurity to celebrity mirrors cultural shifts, says Jerome Bourdon, a professor of television history and media studies at Tel Aviv University, who describes it as a chicken-and-egg problem—did we lose interest in the Old Guard of celebrities before or after we decided we ourselves deserved more spotlight? “In the second generation of reality TV” following early game show models, “we are talking about ‘hyper-capitalist’ shows,” Bourdon says. “Very individualistic, need for exposure, quest for celebrity as the ultimate form of social success.... The shows impose ideas on participants, but also on [the] audience—that your best resource is yourself, your own image, and your capacity to control it.”
That resonates with the new zeitgeist in which everyone maintains carefully curated social media accounts and perceives their identities as “brands”—television stardom is suddenly not just aspirational, but attainable. This draws viewers in and keeps their attention.
These same factors have driven a similar shift in how we consume television, according to Papacharissi. Whether you’re voting for a Bachelor contestant via text message or idly using hashtags while tuning in to a Housewives marathon, viewers’ voices matter, though it’s hard for networks to discern what these behaviors mean.
“Viewers typically multitask when they watch these shows and when they watch TV in general, either talking to family and friends, working, performing other tasks, or—and this is the most popular—watching and chatting, commenting along with others on social media on their tablets and iPhones,” Papacharissi says. “We used to think that high user involvement might be linked with greater popularity of shows. However, given how dispersed user involvement is across different devices and tasks these days, it is difficult to make that claim.”
“The core elements of Survivor are pretty much the same as they were when the show debuted in 2000,” Dawson says, an unusual feat for any series in the current TV climate.
The sense of participation is key, both in competition-based shows like Project Runway and programs like Dance Moms that don’t have a prize, but position players as teams in drama-filled social acrobatics. The format “invites the audience to participate, either directly (through voting) or indirectly (by imagining how they might behave in similar situations),” Papacharissi says.
Dawson suggests these shows are more closely related to sporting events than scripted dramas. In the case of Survivor, viewers get an experience similar to televised sports, Papacharissi explains: “You can root for your favorite castaway like you do for your favorite team, and vicariously experience her triumphs and setbacks from episode to episode.”
That unlikely alignment could explain why reality TV, mocked though it may be, is being watched—perhaps surreptitiously—heavily, and with consistency. “The core elements of Survivor are pretty much the same as they were when the show debuted in 2000,” Dawson says, an unusual feat for any series in the current TV climate. “It's a pretty unexpected turn of events, that 15 years after its debut, the show that was responsible for starting the reality TV tidal wave that dramatically disrupted the status quo of the American TV industry has become a sort of year-in, year-out institution.”
So, too, has the genre: As long as the formula continues to work so well, the experts agree that viewers should expect to see more of the same churned out by major networks. But is that something to curse or celebrate?
Papacharissi says it might be too soon to say. “It certainly is an interesting time for TV, and the most interesting development in my mind is that the way we watch TV is changing. It has become both more personalized and more social,” she says.
But as long as it maintains one key point of attraction, the genre’s not going anywhere: “Schadenfreude,” she says. “The feeling of joy derived from the misfortunes of others, that makes you realize that your life is not so bad after all.”
For a culture that has craved that brand of catharsis since Buster Keaton was stumbling through bread lines, our hunger to see a Real Housewife topple from her sky-high platforms on a (remarkably well-lit) Rodeo Drive shopping trip will remain insatiable enough to keep Andy Cohen in business for decades to come.
Lead photo: Survivor. (Photo: CBS)