overthinking the idiot box

June 13, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

The Nine Month Inch
Sometimes You Just Need a Break From Reality

by Joel Bergen

School's out, the sun is shining, movie theaters are hiking ticket prices. Ah, it's that time of year again — time for the new TV season to begin!

Wait. what? Didn't the last season just end, like, five minutes ago? Doesn't my TiVo deserve a break after working overtime during May Sweeps? Don't I deserve a break?

All of this goes to prove the old axiom "Be careful what you wish for."

For those of you currently on Rumspringa Break who never turned on a TV prior to 1999, it wasn't always like this. It used to be that summer was a time of wall-to-wall reruns, when people who hadn't figured out how to get their VCRs to stop blinking "12:00" (a VCR was like an Amish TiVo) could catch up on all the shows they'd missed and the rest of us could enjoy a trip to the beach without worrying about all the new episodes of Friends we were missing. Sure we complained about having to go three to four months without new installments of our favorite shows, but that was just the way things were and we accepted that.

Until Regis Philbin came along and ruined everything forever.

On August 16, 1999, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire debuted and became an instant sensation (in no small part thanks to the lack of original programming it had to compete with). It wasn't long before the geniuses who program the networks (well, the genius who programmed the Tiffany network, anyway) realized that if they put new stuff on TV in the summer, people might watch. However, with creative people like actors and writers needing time to rest and "stretch" on the big screen and operating budgets designed for nine-month seasons, there was only one place to turn for cheap content that required neither writers nor actors (in the conventional, Guild-regulated sense at least): Reality Television!

Just because it's "new to me" doesn't mean I'm going to spend my summer catching up on reruns of Navy NCIS or Yes, Dear
So on May 31, 2000, CBS premiered a show about 16 people stranded on an island, and yada, yada, yada. 13.2 million people tune in to watch Evander Holyfield cut a rug . Reality gave rise to the summer TV season and the summer TV season gave rise to Reality. It's doubtful that either one of them would've caught on without the other. With mega-hits like Survivor, American Idol, Fear Factor, America's Next Top Model and eventually The Amazing Race (it debuted in September of 2001, but installments 4 and 5 were shunted off to the summer until 5 found a big enough audience last year) all moving on to the big leagues of the regular season, the summer has become testing ground for the networks most off-beat Reality offerings. They throw a ton of them at the wall and see what sticks. Thus, if you've seen every episode of all the scripted shows you care to watch (just because it's "new to me" doesn't mean I'm going to spend my summer catching up on reruns of Navy NCIS or Yes, Dear), Reality is pretty much the only game in town for the summer (not counting a few scattered shows on cable).

The problem for me is that since I watch so many Reality shows during the regular season, the novelty of the summer Reality craze has worn off. More than that not-so-fresh feeling, there's no break from it. At first, Reality was like trashy beach reading — something fun and mindless to give your brain a rest after nine months of convoluted storylines, character arcs and snappy repartee. Now it's become like those obnoxious summer reading lists you'd get on the last day of school. I didn't want to read Wuthering Heights during my months off then and I don't much feel like watching the umpteenth Apprentice rip-off now.

Even Britney can't captivate this summer.
During the regular season, Reality always comes first for me when time-shifting. The survivors of Flight 815 would still be stranded in an hour or two, but I had to know right away who was no longer in the running to be America's Next Top Model. But now, the premieres of the new summer Reality series I was planning on sampling (Hell's Kitchen, Dancing With the Stars, Hit Me Baby One More Time, The Scholar) are gathering moss and yellow exclamation points on my TiVo. Even continuing favorites like Britney and Kevin: Chaotic and Bravo's latest _____ Moms & Dads series are going unwatched for several days as I will myself to watch them. Heck, I've still got leftover episodes of The Simple Life: Interns and last season's best new Reality show The Contender to finish. Yet, when I turn on the TV lately, I'd rather catch up on DVDs of scripted series like Six Feet Under and Homicide than the latest Beauty and the Geek. What's wrong with me?

The truth is, I'm burned out on Reality (shhh, don't tell my editor — that's kinda my beat). Realetists have been predicting for years — pretty much since Richard Hatch won a million bucks — that America would tire of the genre and come running back to scripted television, begging for forgiveness. I've always dismissed that notion as wishful thinking on their part, and I still do. I'm sure that by the time Jeff Probst is back from his summer vacation, I'll be rejuvenated and ready for more shaky camerawork, confessionals and backstabbery. Until then, I think I'll spend my sunny days working on my summer reading list.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 6.