This summer I learned how to surf. No, not on the beaches of California like Gidget and Moon-Doggie, but rather, through the hundreds of channels listed on my television guide. I found myself lost in a sea of reality shows from the Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid” to TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” to ABC Family’s new knock-off of “The Hills” called “The Vineyard.” With each option more nauseating than the last, I found myself wondering: Is it the cost effectiveness for broadcasting companies or the degrading tastes of the American television viewer that has led to rise of the reality era?
First off, the name “reality television” is a misnomer to many of the shows that are categorized as such. In the present time, more and more reality TV shows are becoming scripted – meaning that participants are given some general direction of what they should do. Also, the lives of those depicted in reality television are so sensationalized and extreme that they are not even close to the reality of the average American. In fact, by manipulating this perception, TLC has re-branded itself from “The Learning Channel” to “The Lifestyle Channel.”
From the standpoint of a broadcasting company, reality shows reduce the overall economic strain through their inherent lack of professional actors and screenwriters. According to the Kansas City Star online, compared to network dramas and cable dramas, which can cost up to $4 million and $2 million respectively per hour, reality shows only cost $1 million per hour at the highest end of the spectrum (and as low as $300,000 per hour). By even just experimenting with a reality series, as opposed to a new drama or comedy, a television company can save capital to invest in future projects.
Reality shows additionally provide opportunity for various spin-offs, which allow companies to target key demographics or to expand their reality repertoire even further. For instance, Bravo’s hit “Real Housewives” boasts versions that range both coasts, from New Jersey to Beverly Hills. Targeting a specific region extends the lifetime and the potential audience of a reality show, and therefore adds incentive for broadcast companies looking to cut costs.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the average American watches close to three hours of television daily. Despite the increasingly inferior quality of available programming, Americans steadily dedicate two hours and fifty minutes of their day to some sort of screen. In fact, television viewing is arguably America’s most popular past time, as the total time we spend doing so has surpassed the average two hours and thirty-two minutes we spend participating in all other leisurely activities combined. It is a mindless activity that almost the entire population, from the one percent to those who can barely make ends meet, enjoys.
Therefore, as both broadcasting companies and the average American look for cheap sources of entertainment, reality television presents itself as a solution unparalleled by other alternatives for now. Perhaps, when weighing the opportunity costs of watching teleivision, this would be the better question: is any genre, reality or otherwise, worth almost one-eighth of our lives?