Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reality TV

Nine years ago the Screen Actors Guild went out on strike. While newsworthy, this wasn’t exactly an event that was unprecedented--SAG had similarly gone out on strike in 1980 and several times before.

However, the effects of the strike in 2000 are still being felt as revealed by new statistics about reality television programming. You see, the 2000 strike forced networks and producers of television shows to face the reality that they needed programming which did not feature actors. Thus began the era of reality television and we are still feeling the effects today. What started as a short-term fix has turned into a long-term solution.

A recent analysis of television ratings highlights the success of this format, with no signs of slippage. Dancing With the Stars kicked off this week (its eighth season) with 22.8 million viewers, the show’s biggest opening yet. American Idol continues to dominate the TV ratings competition, even though viewership has declined slightly, and other shows like Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model and Survivor continue to be ratings drivers for their networks. And, The Bachelor became a pop culture headline over the past two weeks given the dramatic conclusion to that show’s season.

One network programmer has opined that the reality show phenomenon is continuing to succeed because viewers, in the current economic climate, want “escapism” versus dramas which are “downbeat and crime focused.” Another network executive cited the recent writers’ strike as a reason why reality programming has continued to succeed—the strike left unscripted programs intact but had a major negative impact on series.

The Bachelor was up 44% in season-over-season ratings, Dancing With the Stars is up 7%, Biggest Loser is up 20% and America’s Next Top Model is up 11%. Conversely, past hit series like House and Lost are down 24% and 18%, respectively.

What’s ironic is that SAG was created in the 1930’s to protect actors from being exploited by film studios. Almost 80 years later, actors aren’t being exploited—they just aren’t getting as much work because their gigs have been cannibalized by the number of “real” people who are now appearing on camera.

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