Of the top 25 TV shows broadcast last week, 7 were on Univision, 1 was the All-Star Game, and 11 were reality shows. Only six English-language scripted shows made the list. For good or ill, reality is taking over.
Compare that to OverthinkingIt.com, where a search for “reality” turns up over 179 articles, including a lot of Lost, Back to the Future and Total Recall commentary. Meanwhile, searches for “reality TV” and “reality show” turn up fewer results, most of them in the comments section or on an open thread. A couple of years ago, frequent commenter Gab asked “does anybody watch any reality TV, or is that… below… the Overthinkingit uh, cast?”
We’re not above reality TV (or much of anything, really), but that side of popular culture can be difficult to Overthink. While we can examine the characters, the production and the terrors that these shows presage for our society, this site tends to deal with broader themes.
Wikipedia says that there are ten subgenres of reality TV, but I argue that there are only four themes.
1) Competition – which of these dancers, apprentices, singers, travelers, eaters, attention whores, drug addicts, chefs, midgets will win the day? (America’s Next Top Model, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, Celebrity Apprentice, The Amazing Race, Dance Your Ass Off, American Idol, Fear Factor, Project Runway, Last Comic Standing, Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, almost everything on the Food Network)
2) Awful people being awful. (Real Housewives, Tool Academy, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Toddlers & Tiaras, Jersey Shore, The Osbornes, Bridezillas, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Girls Next Door, etc.)
3) Saving people from themselves. (Biggest Loser, Clean House, What Not to Wear, Extreme Makeover: Every Edition, Supernanny, Intervention, Hoarders, OCD Project, Inner Beauty)
4) Doing your job. (Ice Road Truckers, Ace of Cakes, Cake Boss, Dirty Jobs, Miami Ink, Pawn Stars, Pit Boss)
Hard to overthink those few basic themes, but for this Underthought juggernaut of the popular culture, it’s worth a shot. I plan to spend the next few posts taking a look at reality shows and trying to dig a little deeper.
First, I want to take a look at Food Network and the food shows on Bravo. Having been subjected to countless hours of these shows in recent weeks, one thing has become clear: the producers of the Food Network are pornographers.
Pornography’s attempts to stimulate its audience are handicapped, seeking to approximate the full-on sexual experience with only two of the five senses. In order to make up for the fact that you can’t touch, taste or smell the folks getting it on for you, porn has to provide additional stimuli. Though lots of fun for those involved using all five senses, watching and listening two normally sized Americans have basic Wednesday night missionary sex in a bed just isn’t doing it for us anymore. First, they started hiring insanely beautiful women. Then those women started getting surgically altered to look like Jessica Rabbit. Now there are whole websites dedicated to tying up midgets in public settings—you’ll have to google that yourself. The unusual makes up for the handicaps of the medium.
Food shows are forced to do the same thing.
A television network devoted to food is like an art appreciation class for the blind – the key elements of the discussion just aren’t going to come through. Imagine the investor meeting for the Food Network. A journalist from the Providence Journal in Rhode Island goes into the offices of Scripps Networks Interactive (true) and says: “We’re going to do an entire channel about food.” The Scripps executive says: “But food is all about taste, smell and texture and we haven’t even perfected smell-o-vision.” The journalist then pulls out his extensive blackmail file on the executive and the rest is history.
If the network primarily hosted shows on HOW to cook, it would make sense. That sort of information can be transmitted through audiovisual means. Instead of pornographers, the Food Network producers would be the culinary equivalent of the folks who made the filmstrips you slept through in middle school.
But that’s not what the network does. Some of their programs focus on interesting food from exotic locations, sort of a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous “you’ll never get to eat this, you plebian” gastronomic tease. The majority of food shows, however, focus on competition between chefs. This is where it gets pornographic.
The basic setup of every food-related competition show is this:
A number of cooks will be given a limited amount of time and a specific theme and/or ingredient.
The cooks run around a lot and cut up lots of things. This is interspersed by interviews in which each cook gets to gripe about the limitations of the special ingredient, take shots at their competitors, or talk about their boundless confidence/crippling lack thereof.
The food is presented to the judges. They eat, then critique the meal in front of them using words that sound really impressive to the uninitiated (favorite recent example: “acidity”). Whenever something bad is said about a dish, on any show, the same ominous bass drum sound effect moves us on to the next contestant.
One of the contestants is eliminated. Rinse. Repeat. We’ve just spent an hour watching people make food that we’ll never get to eat.
Like their friends Hugh Hefner, Larry Flint and that douchebag from Girls Gone Wild, the Food Network producers have figured out what they can give us that will make up for the fact that we derive no actual satisfaction from what they have to offer.
In this case, they’ve added two completely extraneous elements: surprise ingredients and time limits, the twin breast implants of the food show world.
I spent a few months in a restaurant kitchen and have had sex once or twice. I’ve never witnessed a chef presented with rattlesnake meat or forced to prepare a desert with marshmallows, risotto and bamboo chutes. I’ve also never had a woman beg me for a facial. These things do not, and should not, actually happen.
What they do is make up for the fact that neither the enormous fake boobs nor the braised scallops in a reduction of blueberries and pine nuts are actually going in your mouth.
Thanks to my girlfriend, I am fairly familiar with Top Chef, Say Yes to the Dress, Chopped, Clean House, Ace of Cakes and Cupcake Wars. Thanks to being alive, I am familiar with Big Brother, Real World, Top Model, American Idol, So you Think You Can Dance and the biggest new hit: Wipeout. Thanks to Belinkie, I knew Iron Chef before it came to the states (and saw God of Cookery ten years ago, before anyone in the US knew who Stephen Chow was). Beyond that, I’m a novice, so I’m calling on our commenters to suggest new reality shows to Overthink.
Next time: “From Jim Carrey to Snooki: the false promise of the Truman Show.”
Say what you want about reality tv, whatever, but to use the Nielsen ratings in JULY as an arbiter of what is popular on television generally is almost idiotic. Popular broadcast network scripted fare is in hiatus. And putting “reality” shows on in the summer, when tv-watching levels traditionally decline, is nothing new; back in the day the summer saw more episodes of magazine shows and stunts like “Battle of the Network Stars” not to mention summer-only variety shows.
Look at the ratings for May and you’ll find something more realistic. Sure, there’s reality—Idol at least, and probably one of the Burnett shows—but also House and CSI and Grey’s and a huge pile of other shows.
Certainly, the summer skews toward reality tv. So I did what you said and took a look at the May numbers (May 23). You’re right, there are a lot more scripted programs on the list.
But while more scripted shows appear on the top 25 list, they’re still getting stomped by reality TV. The Lost Finale had 13.5 million viewers, but Dancing with the Stars and American Idol had more than 19 million viewers each. They even beat out the Baby-Boomer-crack-show NCIS, which had 18 million viewers. (BTW – someone needs to overthink the fact that the Naval Criminal Investigation Service is of such interest to our parents’ generation)
Since my goal was to demonstrate the centrality of reality TV to modern popular culture, the fact that six million more people watched a show about amateur singers then watched the much heralded Lost finale seems to bear me out.
And the full-season numbers bear you out as well: of the top 25 shows (by ratings and by absolute number of viewers) in the 2009-2010 TV season, just under half are unscripted: http://www.deadline.com/2010/05/full-series-rankings-for-the-2009-10-broadcast-season/
I’m not saying that isn’t true, but that Idol beat Lost—and Idol’s been the number one show on television for some years now, with this being the year DWTS gave it a run for its money—is a much narrower point than “only 6 English-language scripted shows are in the top 25.” Not to mention that of course most of the 09/10 season was skewed by the disastrous Jay Leno at 10pm experiment, which dropped NBC down to less than half scripted programming network-wide.
Just saying you could have made your point with smarter numbers, not something that was so easy for me to take a swing at.
Great idea for a series, McNeil! I think I’d most like to hear your take on The Deadliest Catch. (And Ice Road Truckers, too, I guess.) I don’t watch it on a regular basis, but every time I do something horrible happens. Either a boat capsizes, or someone has a stroke and dies, or someone’s dad has gone missing. Something. I start talking to the guys on-screen: “Please, people! For the love of God, get a less dangerous job! My heart can’t take this.”
I don’t mind when terrible things happen to people on dramas on a weekly basis, but when a reality show does it opens a completely different can of worms. In some ways, shows like The Deadliest Catch, and, say, American Chopper are about the same theme (“doing your job, especially when its manly and blue-collar”), but American Chopper seems to be more about vicariously living the awesome lives of the people who are famous for making motorcycles for a living, while The Deadliest Catch is about watching a bunch of sad-looking men men put themselves through hell to put food on their tables.
What do you think? What are we supposed to get out of these shows?
Oh, also, I think you left out a theme, which is “educating the audience to do something they’ll probably never do.” Examples include all survival shows (Dual Survival is my new favorite), most traveling-and-eating-weird-crap shows (like Bizarre Foods), and home decorating shows.
Hey, I got quoted! Awesome!
Awesome article- when I watch the next episode of _Top Chef: D.C._, I’ll be thinking of porn the whole time. I’ll have to make something up if the gal I watch with sees me blushing. Thanks. (And I mean it- totally enjoyed reading.)
Now, for serious, you could do a weekly post on the entire eighth season of _Project Runway_, since it premiers on the 29th. I’m going to be watching it, myself (but no, I’m not biased at *all*, ahem).
I miss _Wild and Crazy Kids_, though. Find that on DVD or something and overthink IT, and you’d be my hero.
“A television network devoted to food is like an art appreciation class for the blind – the key elements of the discussion just aren’t going to come through.” Such a good sentence.
Competition Shows: Chopped, Iron Chef America, Cupcake Wars, Food Network Challenge, The Next Food Network Star, The Next Iron Chef, Chefs vs. City, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, Dinner: Impossible, Glutton for Punishment, Worst Cooks in America, Ultimate Recipe Showdown (12)
Description/Information/Travel Shows: $40 a Day, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Ace of Cakes, Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, Feasting on Waves, Food Detectives, Giada’s Weekend Getaways, The Secret Life Of, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, Unwrapped, Will Work for Food, Heavyweights, Have Fork, Will Travel, How’d That Get On My Plate?, Kid In a Candy Store, Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels, Rachael’s Vacation, Hungry Detective, Road Tasted, Road Tasted with the Neelys, Roker on the Road (21)
How to Cook Shows: 30 Minute Meals, 5 Ingredient Fix, Alex’s Day Off, Ask Aida, Barefoot Contessa, BBQ with Bobby Flay, Big Daddy’s House, Behind the Bash, Boy Meets Grill, Chic & Easy, Cooking for Real, Down Home with the Neelys, Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello, Emeril Live, Everyday Italian,
Giada at Home, Good Eats, Grill It! with Bobby Flay, Guy Off the Hook, Guy’s Big Bite, Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger, Nigella Bites, Nigella Express, Nigella Feasts, Paula’s Home Cooking, Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller, Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa d’Arabian, The Essence of Emeril, What Would Brian Boitano Make?, Viva Daisy!, Molto Mario, Jamie at Home, How To Boil Water, Ham on the Street, Good Deal with Dave Lieberman, Mexican Made Easy, Party Line with the Hearty Boys, Paula’s Best Dishes, Paula’s Party, Tyler’s Ultimate, Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, Sandra’s Money Saving Meals, Rescue Chef, Simply Delicioso with Ingrid Hoffmann,
Spice & Easy, Sugar Rush, The Cooking Loft, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef (49)
Other: Private Chefs of Beverly Hills, My Life in Food, Inside Dish, Recipe for Success, The Chef Jeff Project, Throwdown with Bobby Flay (6)
I have to object though. There are more “how to cook shows” than all of the other shows combined.
Speaking of our insatiable appetite (ha! appetite!) to watch other people cook food we’ll never eat, this is one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons of all time: http://bit.ly/dwmobS
“What Would Brian Boitano Make?”??? For serious? I don’t know if I should headdesk or exult.
I say go with either ‘Catch’ or ‘Dirty Jobs’. Both show the reality of life as a working person and the stuff that they go through. It’s not pretty but IMO it’s reality in its truest form.
In Australia, the most popular TV show is MasterChef. it’s basically a cooking competition show. it beats everything else in the ratings. every body talks about it. it’s everywhere
and things like Dancing with the Stars and Border Security are just as popular
i’m not sure why… Australian TV is pretty primitive. there are only 5 channels, and Aussies are a simple people. but there’s probably a less insulting explanation
“What they do is make up for the fact that neither the enormous fake boobs nor the braised scallops in a reduction of blueberries and pine nuts are actually going in your mouth.” Love it! Well done.
Your porn analogy got me to thinking: how come the most popular TV show in the world isn’t a reality show *about the porn industry*? It would seem to have it all! Googling “reality show porn” gives plenty of hits, but I’m a bit scared to click on most of them.
Well, there you go.
Great article! I would love to see some overthinking of reality TV. There are a couple of reality shows I actually enjoyed (sort of), so here are my suggestions:
* Mythbusters. Okay, it’s not really a reality TV show, as most of it is scripted, I suppose. But I love how they combine actual scientific questions with “blowing stuff up”.
* Undercover Boss: I only watched the first few episodes, but this “fish out of the water” type of show was at times really fascinating (and funny).
* Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Think about it: A Brit trying to change the eating habits of Americans – it can only go wrong, or can’t it?
I suggest categories more than particular shows. For instance, wedding shows, artistic work shows vs. tough, gritty work shows. Why do these things appeal to us? What is the formula and why does it work/not work? With competition shows, how important are the judges/format? If the basic framework of a show is not the most important aspect then how can it exist let alone be successful?
Bamboo shoots, not bamboo chutes.
McNeil, if you ever want to talk about and over think reality shows, I’d like to invite you to be a guest on my reality show podcast sometime. While we mostly provide recaps and joke about the concepts and challenges we do like to occasionally like to discuss the point of a show.
Also, to be fair Tool Academy is a competition show that is trying to save awful people from being awful.