The ongoing debate about reality TV—is it the savior of the networks or the symbol of the decline of civilization?—continues to dominate the television landscape.
Looking back at the broadcast-network upfront presentations, wasn't it ironic that the focus was more about what was not
on the schedules—reality TV—than what was
presented to advertisers? Now, just a short time later, the broadcasters have begun their foolproof strategy for getting viewers to tune in this summer, and that strategy is rooted firmly in reality TV.
Those two seemingly contradictory pronouncements make it clear that reality TV isn't all good or all bad. But it is, if you'll forgive the pun, a reality of television in the 21st century.
The discussion has elicited comment from just about every interest group—networks, advertisers, studios, actors, critics, writers, agents—except one: the audience.
Yet it's the viewers, especially those under 25, who have so ardently embraced the genre and whose television choices are beginning to change the face of the medium. As the television networks try to figure out what's next, they shouldn't be so quick to distance themselves from reality television or think of it as only a short-term stopgap, and instead accept it for what it really is: our first glimpse into the impact this group of under-25-year-olds will have on the future of television.
MTV Networks has extensively surveyed this generation, born since 1978, whom we have dubbed the "media-actives" because they have never known a world of limited options and forced choices and therefore take an active role in their media experience.
We always knew there were a lot of them—about 70 million, compared with about 77 million baby boomers—and now we also know that today's young people have a unique way of accessing and processing information and entertainment that is markedly different from the way their parents and older siblings do. And those differences come through loud and clear in the way they have embraced reality television.
For example, when they are watching Joe Millionaire
or The Bachelor, it's not just
to see who gets the guy. The deeper reasons they watch are that these programs are current, urgent and of-the-moment; they validate and connect with their viewers; and the focus on relationships and dating is directly relevant to them at this stage in their lives.
What do we mean by "of the moment?" Traditional means of presenting programs have relied on the assumption that, in a perfect world, popular shows would run seemingly forever. Ten years ago, the top 10 television shows averaged 81/2 years on the air. Today, few shows, even the hits, stick around longer than a couple of seasons.
This year's top 10 average five years. It is the same reason movie studios shoot for blockbuster opening weekends. The emphasis today must be on immediacy, a recognition that popularity is fleeting and celebrity disposable. This is just what the top reality shows deliver to a group of people who associate "forever" with "yesterday." These shows are created to burn big, burn bright and then disappear. Continuous reinvention is mandatory.
Then there's connection. We have known for a long time that young people use media to connect with their peers and to validate their choices. These days, they want to see themselves reflected on TV, as the current spate of reality shows will attest. That's why young people line up in the cold to audition for American Idol; identify with Jenna or Matthew on Survivor: Amazon; and hold viewing parties to watch the premiere of a new season of Real World. With these shows, they are not passive viewers but active participants.
Perhaps most important is relevance. The media-actives are the first generation to grow up with cable, specifically with cable channels created just for them. Later, videogames allowed them to create their own reality, and, most recently, the Internet became the ultimate in customization. In their world, they need only be exposed to things immediately relevant to them and nothing more. Their mantra might as well be "What I want when I want it."
This is an audience to whom relevance is everything. Given all the choice and control they have enjoyed during their lives, anything irrelevant will not be on their media menu for long.
As this generation brings their media-active habits into adulthood, companies that have historically catered to a more passive audience will need to develop products and programming that give this new group what they are looking for and reflects their habits and interests.
It won't take years, however, to witness the change, because elements of reality television have already begun to address their demands and expectations.
This doesn't mean that scripted comedies and dramas will go away or that actors, writers and agents will lose their jobs. But it does mean that some level of reality programming is here to stay. There should be no debate about that. Reality will never fully displace more-traditional fare, but elements of these shows have clearly struck a chord with young people, and the industry would do well to listen to the voices of change.
Nowhere is it written that scripted programming can't tap into these elements, and it is critical to the long-term health of our business that we try.