The longest 15 minutes: A closer look at so-called reality television by Sherry Bithell

"In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Andy Warhol, 1968

In early 2000, executives from the big four networks--ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC--were concerned. During the previous decade, the growing number of new, specialized cable channels had noticeably eroded the networks' viewership. Adding to the executives' worries was a looming Writers and Actors Guild strike, which could hamper or even halt program production.

That summer, however, an unlikely hit rode to the rescue: CBS's "Survivor," a reality show that challenged 16 contestants on an island in Tahiti to "outwit, outlast, and outplay" each other for a $1 million prize. The show shot to the top of the Nielsen ratings, its finale alone garnering 51 million viewers.

Since then, the networks have been scrambling to find the next hit reality show while media pundits, asking themselves how many times the same concept can work, have been predicting the demise of the genre--only to be proven wrong every time a new show surges to the top of the ratings. Read what three Tech experts and two reality show alumnae have to say about the truth behind this latest television fad.

Defining the genre

Experts argue about the finer points of what makes a reality show, but the basic rule of thumb is that it must follow the fortunes of actual people, not characters or actors. So although the current onslaught of reality-based programming can be attributed to--or blamed on--the success of the first "Survivor," the genre is far from new.

The first reality program aired in 1947, when Allen Funt's "Candid Microphone" broadcast the complaints of servicemen on Armed Forces Radio. The following year, Funt applied his idea to the emerging medium of television to produce the long-running reality show "Candid Camera."

PBS opened the door to reality show dramas in 1973 with "An American Family," which featured members of the Loud family--including an openly homosexual son--coping with the parents' decision to divorce. The show was controversial for its time and the press reviled it, but 10 million viewers faithfully tuned in to the family's struggles.

Two of today's reality television staples, "America's Most Wanted" and "Cops," began airing in 1988 and 1989, respectively, and 1990 saw the first episode of "America's Funniest Home Videos." MTV introduced the modern dramatic reality show, "The Real World," in 1994; its 14th version, "The Real World: San Diego," continues to pull in a strong number of younger viewers.

So-called reality


A long-time viewer of "Survivor," recent participant Michelle Tesauro '03 didn’t realize how immersive an experience it would be: "Your reality changes. No matter how many times you say to yourself, 'It’s just a game,' it's not like that. Your reality is the game."

When discussing the genre, many people put the word "reality" in quotes to convey their skepticism. Professor of Communication Jim Weaver notes, "When we say 'reality,' we have to remember that participants are selected to react--not interact--with each other to produce what appears to be spontaneous drama."

Classic drama, he adds, "has antagonists, protagonists that an audience can identify with, conflict, and a last-minute triumph or failure. The producers of these shows are clearly following that formula."

Another factor chipping away at the notion of reality is the role of the post-production crew in shaping a show. "For a one-hour show, producers only need 44 minutes of video from seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day worth of feed," Weaver points out, adding that during the process of paring down hundreds of hours of footage, video editors naturally choose the most dramatic and interesting storylines to emphasize. "Think how dull the shows would be if everyone got along. The producers are making deliberate choices."

The ensuing tension is a primary reason viewers are attracted to such shows, according to Scott Geller, professor of psychology. "We can view the privacy of intimate relationships without giving of ourselves," he explains. "It becomes a game about comparing one's common sense with reality shows. It's about guessing what you would have done--a way of testing ourselves."

Watching contestants have hundreds of live roaches poured over them or vie for the attentions of an attractive member of the opposite sex allows viewers to live vicariously, Geller says. "It permits us to live situations we don't really have to be in. Does your common sense about people enable you to choose what's going to happen, who's going to get voted off? That pulls us in."

There's also the human element of watching someone else suffer. On shows such as NBC's "Fear Factor," contestants try to win money by performing potentially unpleasant tasks like bungee jumping from a tall bridge or eating a cow's brain, and on FOX's "American Idol," aspiring singers sweat their way through auditions. "We don't ever see ourselves doing that," Geller says, "so it's almost like we feel better about ourselves if we see someone else doing terrible things."

The key to reality shows, he adds, is audience participation. "As soon as you ask yourself, 'Who would I choose as my lifeline?' or 'Could I complete that challenge?' you're hooked."

A front-row seat

Another hook lies in the name of the genre: reality shows. "These are real people in what look to be real situations," Geller says. "Before reality television, we got turned on to soaps, but this is considered to be more acceptable because they're real people. We put ourselves into their situation and emotionally involve ourselves, and we cheer for people on reality shows and root against them."

To populate their shows, producers look for participants the audience can relate to, whether through love or hate. Yet why would someone choose to have his or her actions captured on camera and edited at will?

"My mom thought it would be really funny," laughs Michelle Tesauro (business and marketing '03), who appeared on "Survivor: Pearl Islands" last year. A former student ambassador for the Pamplin College of Business and Virginia Tech cheerleader, Tesauro interviewed for the show during finals her last semester. "It was the third time I'd applied, actually. I hadn't really thought it would happen."

It did happen, though, and Tesauro got her first brush with reality during the opening minutes of her season of "Survivor"--in which former Tech student Jon Dalton also appeared--when producers told the 16 contestants to jump off a boat and to leave behind their bags and survival items.

"It was horrible," Tesauro recalls. "They told us we were just going out on the boat to take some pictures, but I had a weird feeling about it." Still, she says, the miserable beginning made it easy for her to adapt quickly to the idea of being filmed all day, every day. "Pretty much, when they throw you into the ocean with nothing but the clothes you're wearing, you don't really care about what's going on with the camera."

A long-time viewer of "Survivor," Tesauro didn't realize how immersive an experience participanting the show would be. "Your reality changes. You are not just a contestant, you're really on an island with these strange people and a little food--and that's it," she says. "No matter how many times you say to yourself, 'It's just a game,' it's not like that. Your reality is the game."

Although contestants were constantly surrounded by several production crew members, the harsh living conditions were real. In fact, Tesauro says, "The only way the medical staff would pay attention to you is if you were on the verge of death. We all had huge ankles because of the heat and bugs, and they'd say, 'That's too bad. You have an infection.'"

She also denies rumors that the contestants were asked to re-shoot scenes. "If they had ever asked us to do that, I would have laughed in their faces or told them to pick from the hours of footage they already had."

Another alumna who recently appeared on a reality show is Warona Setshwaelo (theatre arts '00), who was working as a video editor in her native Botswana when she applied for "Big Brother Africa." "I was bored with my life and my job, and I wanted to do something completely different," she says.

Like its American counterpart, the show put 12 roommates into a self-contained house, their only contact with the outside world being the anonymous voice of Big Brother. Unlike the American version, each of the show's contestants was from a different African nation. On the basis of each country's votes, contestants were evicted from the house, with the last one standing awarded a cash prize.

"Luckily, I had worked in television before, so I knew that they could twist the show into anything they wanted," Setshwaelo says, "but it definitely shocked some of my housemates when they saw how easy it was for the producers to depict us in any way they wanted."

Still, she adds, although she had guessed that the producers would portray her as being loud and outspoken, "I was kind of offended that they would literally cut and paste conversations I had with people to make it look like we were talking about something completely different. I usually came out looking like a moron in that kind of a situation!"

"Big Brother Africa" received high ratings, but it also generated a lot of controversy when some contestants' evictions were seen as a blow to national pride. The president of Namibia implored his fellow citizens not to watch, and, at the behest of Malawi's president, the show was taken off that country's national television. Setshwaelo, on the other hand, was the only contestant to receive a letter of endorsement from her president.

After the show's finale in September 2003, Setshwaelo--who finished fourth--was astonished by the amount of attention she received. "I was almost killed by the thousands of people who came to greet me at the airport when I arrived home," she recalls. Today, she says, "people still recognize me on the street and at malls and restaurants. It's nice to know that they watched the show and appreciated it."

Although Setshwaelo went into "Big Brother Africa" suspecting how she might be edited, some reality show contestants go a step further and create their own characters. Before "Survivor: Pearl Islands" aired, Jon Dalton set the goal of becoming "the most hated Survivor in history." Borrowing from his background as a production assistant in professional wrestling, Dalton created the character "Jonny Fairplay" and proceeded to lie and manipulate his way into the series' final four.

As for his designated villain status, Dalton was duly reviled by the media, which re-named him "Jonny Rotten." In a Feb. 5, 2004, Reality News Online article, Jeff Probst, the host of "Survivor," said, "If we could clone [Jon], he'd be on the show every season. He gave us everything you could ever want from a villain."

It seems, however, that one Hokie could see past Dalton's on-screen persona. Tesauro, who learned of their Virginia Tech connection while on the show, says, "It's strange to see how he reacts on camera versus how he really is." She adds that looking back at the show, she can now see how certain participants marketed themselves. "I didn't do that. I was so naive about it; I was just me."

A real success?

That viewers are interested in the fates of Tesauro, Sethshwaelo, Dalton, and other reality-show participants is undeniable--reality shows often comprise more than a third of the weekly Nielsen-rated top 20 programs. Of greater interest to industry insiders is that more than half of the top 20 shows viewed by 18-to-34-year-olds--the audience most coveted by advertisers--are usually reality-based programs.

In 2002, Communication Professor Matt McAllister delivered a paper titled, "Selling 'Survivor': The use of TV news to promote commercial entertainment," in which he notes that reality programs seem to be highly receptive to product placement. This is particularly appealing to advertisers in an age when viewers fast-forward or channel-surf through commercials.

McAllister cites an example from the April 26, 2001, episode of "Survivor: Australian Outback." At the beginning of the show, he writes, a voice-over announced that the show's sponsor was the new 2001 Pontiac Aztek. "The announcer was not kidding. Less than a minute later, a paid commercial spot for the Aztek aired, touting the vehicle's ability to be used as a camping tent. About nine minutes later, the four remaining contestants ... met host Jeff Probst, who informed them of a 'reward challenge.' The prize? A new Pontiac Aztek.

Later in the show, Colby Donaldson, the winner of the challenge, spent the night in the car, using its tent feature. McAllister notes, "As Colby falls asleep in his new Aztek, the program fades into a commercial break, with the first ad being, of course, for the Pontiac Aztek." Commercial appeal aside, reality shows also appeal to the networks because they are, compared to scripted shows, relatively inexpensive and easy to produce, thanks to cheaper locations and no need for scripts or rehearsals. And don't forget the salary disparity beween actors and reality show contestants: compare the $1 million prize awarded to the "sole Survivor" to the $1.5 million paid to each "Friend" per episode, for example.

The clock keeps on ticking ...

The economic viability of reality shows, from both production and advertising standpoints, may indicate that they are here to stay for at least a while longer. Case in point: Last fall, network executives held true to their promise that the fall 2003 schedule would focus on new sitcoms and dramas. However, many of the new programs quickly tanked ratings-wise, which led to some last-minute patching of schedules with new reality shows, many of which fared far better with audiences. As a result, it seems as though reality shows are everywhere--including on cable, with such shows as Bravo's surprise hit, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," and TLC's popular "Trading Spaces." Even the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is getting into the act; in February, the academy announced that a new Emmy category, "Outstanding Reality-Competition Program," would "recognize excellence in game shows and competitive, unscripted shows."

For the many people who remain critical of the reality genre, however, Weaver does offer a beacon of hope: the idea that television is a historically cyclical business. "There was a period in the 1980s where there was a tremendous focus on nighttime dramas like 'Dallas' and 'Falcon Crest.' Then there was a sitcom cycle. Now there's this one," he shrugs.

So it still may be only a matter of time before the shows' 15 minutes of fame are up--but just how much longer will it take?