The old adage, "The box office never lies," has proved true again with news that more than 40 million TV viewers tuned in to watch the finale of "Joe Millionaire." That's a larger Nielsen rating than any entertainment program since last year's Oscars. And it produced a tankful of water-cooler conversation.
Indeed, many Americans are in love with these "reality" shows, even while commenting on their absurdity, self-humiliation, and poor taste. But with some 22 new reality shows expected later this year, viewers should ask if they want their airwaves turned into mere spectacle, a Roman circus of the most bizarre.
Take "Fear Factor," where contestants eat bizarre animal parts. Or "Are You Hot," where contestants parade more than half naked before judges to be given scores for their physical appeal. Or "Amazing Race: Man vs. Beast," which featured an elephant competing with 44 dwarves to see which side can pull the most weight.
Looking back at "Survivor," the genesis of this genre, TV's rapid descent into darkness is clear.
That many reality shows now are mired in litigation is itself a telling development. Some have been sued for defamation of character, invasion of privacy, emotional and physical abuse, or even rigging of results.
What helps drive these shows is that they can cost about half of a typical hour-long TV drama or sitcom (although they're less likely to be syndicated). Lost, though, in the focus on the business bottom line, is an emphasis on the art and craft of television. Witty writers who helped propel sitcoms and drama aren't part of this new reality mix.
Still, what reality programs do offer, despite their often abhorrent form, is a fairly high degree of authenticity. Studies have shown that Americans long for that quality in public life, in politics, and business, and now, apparently, in television entertainment. "American Idol," Fox's recent wildly successful talent show offers proof of that. It's alive with natural folksiness. PBS offers similar authentic fare with "This American House," dropping ordinary people into extraordinary periods of American history to experience life in different ways.
The emergence of a new, quasi-improvisational form of entertainment with no professional actors, even if in unreal situations, is an important TV evolution to note.
When such shows reach for authenticity with the deeper realities of wit, style, and taste, the result can be a true addition to the storytelling possibilities of television.