It's everywhere - game shows, daytime talk shows, "amazing" home videos, wild-animal attacks, and "Cops." Reality TV comes unscripted, actor-free, usually videotaped and highly edited. One form or another of it is on most channels every day of the week.
It has been fostered by the proliferation of home-video cameras that have captured everything from the Rodney King beating - played repeatedly on evening news programs - to pet tricks and car crashes. Television news has been influenced by reality TV and so has the public.
The game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (ABC) has been a phenomenal success, and "Greed" (Fox) introduced a touch of competitiveness into the mix. But "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" sank to depths that embarrassed its network (Fox), despite its high ratings.
In "Survivor," which began Wednesday, and the coming "Big Brother" (July 6), both on CBS, game shows meet "Real World" - the MTV teen melodrama that places strangers together in a house for months and tapes what happens.
"Survivor" and "Big Brother" also place strangers together - but in stressful Darwinian battles of the fittest that reward the winner's competitive and cooperative skills with a big cash prize.
With all the hype surrounding both, they should kick ratings sky high. Progenitors in Europe proved to be hypnotic "dramality" programming, a term combining "drama" and "reality" that "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett has coined.
Just in case you've been too busy with real life to notice the advance buzz, earlier this year "Survivor" dropped 16 highly scrutinized contestants on an island near Borneo in the South China Sea with few necessities. They had to find their own water and food (rats are often mentioned in press reports as a protein staple) and build shelters. Meanwhile, 10 camera crews followed them around the island 24 hours a day for 39 days, editing on sight the "highlights" of each week, Mr. Burnett says.
Every three days, the group elected to remove one member until only two remained. The final seven booted off were called back to vote on who of the last two standing should get the $1 million prize. We won't learn who won until the program concludes.
A 24/7 adventure
"There's nothing 'real' about a group of adventure seekers going to an island," Burnett says.
What is real about it, however, are the emotions the adventure seekers experience. That is one of its fascinations for viewers, he says.
The same goes for "Big Brother." Producers built a house and yard in Studio City, Calif., where cameras and their crews will watch behind two-way mirrors 24 hours a day as 10 participants live without TV, radio, or contact with the outside world for 100 days. The "houseguests" are required to carry out meaningless tasks in order to "earn" more than minimal food. There is no privacy, even in the bathroom. A voice called Big Brother will warn them when they stray from the rules requiring full disclosure.
Like their counterparts on "Survivor," they have to get along with their fellow contestants, or be expelled by them, as they compete for the big ($500,000) cash prize. Every two weeks, two will be nominated to leave, and the viewing public will vote one of them out.
"Big Brother is watching you," from George Orwell's novel "1984," has come true as entertainment. And all of it will be available to the viewing public five nights a week on TV and 24 hours a day on four video streams on the Internet.
Sociology professor Mark Fishman of Brooklyn College, The City University of New York, has made a study of reality TV ("Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs").
"The Germans have a word for it, the appeal of some of these shows," he says. "It's called 'schadenfreude.' It means taking delight in the misfortunes of others. It's a guilty pleasure. You feel you shouldn't be watching. It's always been in good taste not to look at these things.... It's a moral envelope that's being pushed.... We seem to be in a new age of making public what [we used to think] shouldn't be seen."
What's next, televised executions? Talk-show host "Phil Donahue wanted to do a program on public executions," says Meg Moritz, associate dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "He wanted to get a dialogue going."
She points out that news organizations used to make a distinction between newsmakers' public and private lives. But the lines blurred irrevocably after the Monica Lewinsky debacle. "Now we're going for all the personal detail," she says. "There is a huge push for ratings, and new technology makes the opportunities for voyeurism greater than ever."
"Reality" shows have become popular with producers - they're usually cheap to make. But why is the viewing public in the grip of them? And what draws the contestants themselves?
MTV's "Real World" is entering its ninth season and is still popular with its teenage audience.
"Cops" is the longest running entertainment show on TV, going into its 12th season. It has enticed viewers with real-life tapings of police calls to crime scenes, arrests, and victim assistance. The show has been accused of fostering racism and fear. But its creator, John Langley, sees the show as beneficial, giving a human face to law enforcement and fostering compassion for those who have one of the toughest jobs in society.
"These are just men and women, not ogres or superhuman beings," he says. "Most of them come into law enforcement as idealists."
Like so much of reality TV, "Cops" has its roots in cinma-vrit - Mr. Langley calls it "video-vrit." But it's selective. "Reality is rambling, so we have to find a beginning, middle, and end with some sort of recap."
The appeal to viewers, according to Langley, echoes what executive producer Paul Romer says about "Big Brother" and Burnett says about "Survivor": "It offers a window in on another world. Law enforcement, crime prevention is high drama; human behavior is unpredictable. We never know what the outcome will be."
Bruce Nash of "World's Most Amazing Videos" (NBC) says the appeal of his reality show lies in the fact that terrible things happen and people walk away unscathed: "We see real, genuine emotions and heroism. A woman was trapped on a Ferris wheel, hanging upside down, and somebody who was just there starts to climb up to help her.... It is unscripted, uncontrived, and spontaneous."
Producer Bob Boden of "Greed" says of his game show, "In many ways, it is a drama without a script - with heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, rising and falling action, mystery and excitement."
"Survivor's" host Jeff Probst says the appeal of his show lies in the idea that it is "truly a human experiment. I'm fascinated by human nature.... It can get duplicitous and diabolical - everyone has to do a lot of politicking. There are 16 people who by their nature consider themselves leaders. It [was] interesting to see who would step back and who would assert themselves.... You start to see the layers peel back, and eventually you arrive at the truth because no one can hide behind a faade forever.
"But it was a game, and it wasn't all bad," Mr. Probst continues. "People became more aware of themselves and who they are. There were moments of clarity when people realized all of a sudden, 'Hey, this is no different than the place I work.' ... You have to learn to get along."
A 'Survivor' survivor: 'It changed my life'
One "Survivor," known as Dirk, a substitute teacher from Wisconsin, found the experience worthwhile, just as producer Burnett says they all did.
"It has changed my life in every respect - my relationship with God and everyone else, myself, the world," Dirk says. "Everything was taken away from me. Without all the distractions [of modern life] you have to look inside yourself.... I value things like time, friendships, food a lot more. It made me realize all of us spend so much time focusing our energies on things that really don't matter.... There is nothing worth hurting another person for."
Probst corroborates Dirk's experience.
"You see some of the worst in people, but you do see the best in people, too," he says. "There were a couple of particular cases of contestants that would only play by their own sense of ethics."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society