What Happened to Reality TV?

Julie-ChenRemember the early days of reality television? When The Real World was an actual social experiment in seeing how real people lived and interacted with each other? Better yet, remember when Big Brother was intriguing and wasn’t all about the sensationalized drama? Remember when the genre wasn’t even a genre yet, just a collection of groundbreaking experimental programming? Those days are no more. Now “reality” is all about the spectacle and the ability to either ridicule or celebrate those that embody it.

I am truly sad that for the first time I will not be watching Big Brother on CBS. For years, I have been an avid watcher of the show, anticipating each new “summer of secrets” and the twists that the houseguests would have to face. Every year, there were people to root for and people to loathe. But the appeal of Big Brother was to see the different forms of gameplay that the houseguests would use in an attempt to win $1 Million. Lying. Cheating. Secret alliances. “Honest games.” Pure physical domination. All completely valid methods of gameplay that won somebody the prize.

But in recent years, the show started to lose its appeal. Casting started to lean heavily on vapid personalities, eye candy, and less strategic thinkers. Outcomes became predictable (last season, we knew within the first few weeks that Derrick would win unless something unexpected happened … it didn’t). And then there was the racism that plagued season 15. Suddenly, the interpersonal aspects that made the show so entertaining to watch (like The Real World before it) disappeared.

CBS’ Survivor has suffered the same problems. As potential contestants have already seen cycle upon cycle of the series, they have started to follow predictable paths to seek victory. Minorities are almost always either excluded from alliances or ranked at the bottom of the pecking order. Weak-bodied/weak-minded players have realized that there is strength in numbers, and strike at the more competitive targets first. Sooner or later, it feels like watching the same season over and over again.

And that is what the reality television genre is facing now: burn out.

Viewers don’t want to see the same thing over and over; they want something fresh, new, and unexpected. That’s why Big Brother adopted the “Expect The Unexpected” catchphrase. That is the impetus for Survivor‘s forced efforts to tinker with how tribes are formed with each new cycle. And, it is why the multitude of reality shows cropping up on air are increasingly offensive, exploitative, and just plain ridiculous.

Take TLC’s Submissive Wives Guide to Marriage, a special event that the network might develop into a regular series (19 Kids and Counting is in jeopardy after all). The show follows three married couples, two that practice a submissive wife lifestyle, and one that is looking to that lifestyle as a means for saving their relationship. This could have been an exercise in displaying Christian values and exploring husband/wife dynamics. Instead, it is a deep dive into the complete objectification and devaluing of women.

Here are some of the more inflammatory statements from castmember Tara:

“Any woman out there in America, if her husband is grumpy she needs to ask herself when was the last time I slept with my man. It’s wrong to deprive my husband of sex. So, I’m always available. Even if I’m not in the mood.”

“Grab his butt. Girl, you gotta be showing the goods and dressing like a hoochie momma. It doesn’t matter how you feel, you’ve gotta suck it up and do it anyway.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Tara says that she meets her husband at the door every day. And, if he comes home grumpy, she has to wonder if his “love tank was filled” recently because “a man’s testicles begin to hurt if there’s not a release.” There is so much there, I won’t even attempt to unpack it.

Reality TV has also wormed its way into every corner of American life. From the redneck (Duck Dynasty) to the privileged (Keeping Up With The Kardashians), there are trashy reality shows to “capture” people’s lives. Currently, religion seems to be the area that the genre has turned its attention to. Recently, the controversial Preachers of L.A. spawned spin-off Preachers of Detroit. And now Lifetime has Preach, a series that follows prophetesses that believe they have the ability to heal the sick, see the future and rid people of their addictions.

CAUTION: You ain’t ready for this mess of a trailer. Proceed at your own risk.


If you didn’t see the end of reality television coming yet, you can damn well see it now.  Desperate attempts to attract viewers have resulted in increasing amounts of low quality, disposable shows. Whereas burn out used to mean skipping a season or opting for different reality fare, now burn out means becoming complete averse to the genre. So, if you’re anything like me (#BlerdTV: The Shows You’ll Be Watching This Fall), reality television has fallen completely off of your schedule.

Are you still a reality TV watcher? Are there any redeemable shows left? Shout them out in the comments section below!

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.