By Ben Patrick
LOS ANGELES, 26 October 2001 - Joan Didion began her 1997
novel The Last Thing He Wanted with a simple sentence that is
prophetic in light of recent world events:
things have happened lately."
It is especially keen to
the American popular consciousness, drowsied by a relentless parade of
television reports from the Middle East -- a never-ending box-score of
car bombings and turf battles in far-off places with odd-sounding
names. Shaky video images, drawn from a palette weighted toward black,
brown and sandy beige, showed perpetrators and victims who were
blurred and, anyhow, foreign. Meanwhile, America's audience of
emotionally disengaged thrill-cravers greedily gobbled instead
reality-based television shows. The networks had been developing these
as a cost-cutting alternative to the increasing production costs and "ransom"
star salary demands associated with hit dramatic series, then rushed
them to air to hedge against the summer 2000 threat of a Hollywood
actors' and writers' strike. (If actors and writers were to become
suddenly unavailable, the networks would have plenty of programming
that required neither.)
"Survivor" was a success
for CBS, and the British import game show "Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire?" did ratings wonders for ABC, quickly becoming a
four-nights-weekly staple. With the pipeline of comedy and drama shows
threatening to dry up, networks were all too eager to fill their
schedules with reality programs like "Who Wants to Marry a
Multi-Millionaire?", "Temptation Island", and another
British quiz, "The Weakest Link."
In the end, the
strikes were averted, but audiences -- and the networks - were hooked
on the new format.
Media critics bemoaned the dearth of new
dramatic fare, forecasting a gloomy television landscape littered with
base, sensationalist flotsam. Their protests on behalf of high-quality
dramatic programming fell on deaf ears: American viewers had found
some REAL drama to sink their teeth into, and all over Hollywood and
midtown Manhattan, executives were busy meeting with producers,
entertaining pitch after pitch for new shows (and buying an alarming
number of them.)
In less than one season, there was a glut
of reality programming, with predictable results. "Love Cruise"
floundered in ratings shallows, "Elimidate Deluxe" gave
viewers sweaty palms, and the carelessly-staged "Who Wants to
Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" spawned a public-relations fiasco,
while "Boot Camp" marched forward with determination if not
September 11th of this year, the fate of the genre was further
confounded: some real things happened.
into buildings every American knew and burrowed violently into grassy
woods near home. Concrete and glass fell like volcanic ash from Mt.
St. Helens or, perhaps, Vesuvius.
Grainy television pictures from the Middle East were no longer muted,
but red, white, blue, and fiery amber, when flames licked at American
flags to the cheers of foreigners who were suddenly and vividly
demanding attention. Network news anchors Dan Rather, Peter Jennings
and Tom Brokaw, along with their bevy of cable colleagues, were the
television stars of the hour, hour after hour, for days on end. Later,
they returned to fore after receiving letters in the mail containing a
mysterious white powder intended to terrify, if not kill, them.
Primetime Emmy Awards were postponed (and were delayed again when the
event coincided with the commencement of US bombing raids on Afghan
Taliban strongholds.) The networks reportedly lost hundreds of
millions of dollars in advertising revenue. The start of the fall 2001
television season was pushed back.
And when the smoke began
to clear, literally and figuratively, network brass was leery about
just how much more reality the American public would buy.
Leno's "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show with David
Letterman" were cautious and somber following their unexpected
hiatus. Show writers and network executives said they didn't believe
there was much Americans would find humorous. "Saturday Night
Live" tipped its hat to its beleaguered hometown by having mayor
Rudy Giuliani offer the show's signature shout-out opening, "Live
from New York, it's Saturday Night," but otherwise made little
mention of the events occupying the nation's hearts and minds.
for reality shows free-fell, and so did the proverbial axe.
of the first casualties was "The Mole 2", which, according
to Daily Variety, ABC has put on indefinite hiatus, though the show
may be allowed a re-appearance next year. On Friday of last week, ABC
Entertainment Group Co-Chairman Lloyd Braun continued the network's
blood-letting, shelving the series "The Runner", conceived
by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, with the ominous declaration, "Today's
television environment would not be conducive to this type of event."
Of the reality shows left on the air, only a few have held
onto a respectable ratings share, including the venerable "Survivor",
set this time in Africa, which finished in 7th place for the week of
October 11th. It was the only non-dramatic program in the top ten -- a
rarity in recent times.
"The bottom line is that
'Survivor' is the main ingredient in the genre and the genre is just
not over yet," Mediaweek Online's Marc Berman confidently told
the New York Post.
However, on October 18th, two days after
Berman's comments, "Survivor: Africa" stumbled, leaving CBS
handily bested in the first half of the time slot by NBC's "Friends".
On cable, Fox Sports Net's "You Gotta See This!"
has been a standout. Despite the overall reality ratings slide, "YGST"
has retained its position as that network's most-watched series. Jeff
Yarbrough, the program's Executive Producer, believes his show's
ratings stability is due to the different tone it has taken since
"We have a variety of ways to soften
the impact of a story," he says. "We decided to pull back on
the gore aspect of the show, just because my stomach is a little more
sensitive than it was before. When you think about the people in the
buildings and on the planes, you start seeing injuries differently. It
makes them more painful to look at."
the change is not the result of a network directive: "Our show is
one of the only ones in this genre performing well in the ratings. I
think [Fox] is reticent to ask for a change in the style of it. They
know they might kill it."
Stuart Krasnow, Executive
Producer for "The Weakest Link", echoes Yarbrough's claim
that the networks have, by and large, left choices in the hands of the
shows themselves - at least for those with the good fortune to still
be on the air. "All of us who [produce programs] are
self-policing our content. As a game show, we're not asking Osama Bin
Laden questions. Of the new content, everyone's avoiding references to
negative events in the world."
But Dean Devlin,
producer of the feature film Armageddon, suggested to the Los
Angeles Times that Hollywood executives may indeed be over-reacting: "I
was shocked the week after the event when I looked at the video
rentals. All the movies about terrorists were renting through the
Why would made-up stories about events similar
to real-world horror suddenly be more appealing at the same time
interest in reality shows lags?
"It's a coping
strategy, frankly, when there's such a dearth of information,"
says Dr. Alan Schneider, Director of the Department of Psychiatry at
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "People were just so stunned. In an
attempt to inform themselves, I can see why they would go out and rent
more movies about terrorism. It's a strategy to reduce our own
Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian
has a different take: "People know the difference between fantasy
and reality," he told Bloomberg News after the opening-weekend
number-one box office finish for the graphic, bloody drama From
Hell. "They just want to be entertained."
ratings, and the advertising revenue they portend, will ultimately
determine how networks proceed, the emotionally bruised audience's
needs may be most immediately satisfied by a shotgun wedding of
fiction and real world events.
Reaction was positive for a
hastily assembled episode of NBC's White House drama "The West
Wing" which dealt specifically with the notion of a terrorist
threat, and likewise positive for an unusual episode of the peacock
network's "Third Watch", in which the actors stepped out of
their roles as emergency police and fire workers in New York to speak
directly to the camera and interview people affected by the tragedy.
Could this concept be taken too far? There is a disturbing
rumor afoot that CBS President Les Moonves is hard at work developing
a comedy series about a widower of the Trade Center collapse who
becomes romantically involved with a woman widowed by the event.
hard to believe that something like that would happen even in the
sitcom world," says Dr. Schneider, waving off the suggestion that
such a program could be a tool for Americans to deal with their
residual fear and sorrow. "It strikes me as incredibly bad taste.
I don't think it's going to help anybody. There's nothing reparative
about something like that."
Whether America follows Dr.
Schneider's advice and stays away from such a show, it seems clear
that "Survivor" -- along with others in the reality genre --
will live on only if they can evolve, adapting to changes in their
environment and doing so with heightened emotional sensitivity.
explains the Hollywood version of natural selection: "This was
the year when we had more reality shows premiering than ever before.
Some were good and some were not so good. And I think good shows
always prevail whether they're reality, drama or comedy."
it Survival of the Fittest.
Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles.
His novel, The Valley of Smoke, will be published by Palari
Press in 2002.