Why The Glass House should be renewed despite its terrible ratings

Since The Glass House was first announced at the end of April, I’ve had a range of reactions to the series. In concept, it sounded like a vastly improved Big Brother, and CBS’ subsequent lawsuit sounded like the network was scared of competition.

When The Glass House finally debuted, it was pretty much a disaster, and at best seemed like same-old, same-old. But after its third episode, it had improved significantly, and its producers did some really great work, such as giving the cast tough choices and creating fun challenges. And let’s not forget the “Call Me Maybe” cold open, which offered the kind of fun a summer show needs.

Then again, going into tonight’s finale, I’m not really invested in the cast. I expect Kevin will win, but he’s so bland and blank, it’s hard to care. And although there were free live feeds on several times a week and a feeling like there was so more happening than one episode a week could ever handle, it also didn’t feel like must-see TV. Most viewers felt the same way: The show had dismally low ratings–last Monday, it was watched by just 1.87 million viewers, and .7 percent of adults 18 to 49.

But despite the low ratings and occasional stumbles, I absolutely think ABC should give it a second season. As unlikely as that may seem, another ABC reality show, Shark Tank, was almost cancelled but was given another chance, and it eventually found its creative groove and a timeslot where it could thrive.

Here’s why ABC should renew The Glass House:

  • The season got better and better. The show really improved from its shitty first episode to last week’s dramatic and genuinely tense challenge, which was an epic build with both physical and mental components. When it worked, it really, really worked. I trust that a second season wouldn’t just lazily repeat season one, but like Survivor did, would grow and change by expanding on what worked and changing what did not.
  • The format was too new for both players and viewers. Although shows ranging from American Idol to Big Brother season one have allowed viewers to vote for who stays and who goes, The Glass House offered something significantly different. My first “holy shit, this is awesome” moment came during the first “fanswers” segment, when players asked viewers direct questions to get our collective opinions. We could actually tell them what was happening behind their backs–if they were smart enough to ask the right questions. Reality TV fans love playing along, and now we actually had a chance to influence strategy, such that it was. This really is a show for die-hard reality TV fans.Speaking of strategy, ever since Richard Hatch, we’ve been conditioned to expect alliances in this kind of competitive series, yet here, they were all but irrelevant. What really matters on The Glass House is viewer perception; it’s a popularity contest, though a popularity contest that can be approached strategically. But the cast took time to figure out that they were part of Dance, Monkey, Dance, not an ordinary show.

    Only Erica really took it to its logical conclusion: talking directly to the cameras, even when others were around. I expect that, in a second season, we’d get that all the time. Who knows, it could be a disaster, but as someone who loves reality TV, I want to see shows take risks and also find new ways to interact with their viewers.

  • The online experience needs improvement. The free, live streaming episodes of the show on ABC.com were crystal clear and fast. And the show was active on Twitter. Otherwise, however, its online presence needed improvement, especially its web site. (This is not the show’s problem, really; the day a major television network figures out how to design a functional, non-shitty web site, I shall rejoice.)Worst of all was the requirement that people to log in to vote, which makes sense only if you don’t want people to vote (and probably explains why somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 people were controlling the show.) The show added prime-time live feeds to its daytime ones, and could use more opening up of its online interaction, since that’s really the core of the series
  • Its producers listen, react smartly, and think critically. The most remarkable thing I have seen in reality television production all summer came the day the live feeds debuted. The then-unnamed host/narrator/voice and the players referred to those watching as “fans,” which I and others observed was a bit presumptuous, since we’d just tuned in to a brand-new show. On day two, Ori apologized, and said that was a description the show and its players needed to earn. They earned it just by that small but significant action alone: the show’s producers listened.Of course, it’s not a good strategy for producers to respond to every reaction blowhards like me blurt out in writing. But being aware of constructive criticism is important, and it’s even more important to be introspective and able to think critically about one’s own show. That happens far too rarely in television.

    Last summer, I asked Big Brother executive producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan what they’d do with the show if it had unlimited resources. Their answer (read it here) was very telling and disappointing, especially because their show has such potential: they basically said they’d change nothing. Contrast that interview with my conversation with Glass House executive producer Kenny Rosen, during which he admits problems with the show and things he’d change.

    That tells me that a season two would be significantly better. Just a random, brainstormed idea that he mentioned to me–having the team captains be those whose vote totals place them in the middle of the pack, meaning they aren’t loved or loathed–shows that he’s constantly thinking about trying new things. To his credit, though, Rosen and his team (and the network) also didn’t freak out and bail on the format mid-season after, for example, some big characters were eliminated. They trust their format and we should trust them to try again.

  • There’s already a gorgeous house on a soundstage. While it looks like the house is now empty of furnishings, which isn’t a good sign, the set was remarkable. In high definition, especially, it was gorgeous–and that’s true behind the scenes in the house, too. The production design was Survivor-level with its attention to detail and smart choices, from the sound played in the house to get the players attention (I really want that as my ringtone) to the voting method.
  • Competition is good. If you didn’t stick with The Glass House, you may have still benefited from it, because it caused Big Brother to pick up its game, if only slightly. For years and years, the CBS show has squandered its opportunity as a show that plays out in real time with a rabid fan base paying attention literally 24-7. (I still do not understand how feed watchers remain functional human beings.) The attitude of the show, however, seems to have just been apathy. Content with some suckers paying for the live feeds and others paying to vote for lame-ass choices (the have/have not food choices, which was creative once but is now tired) or lame-ass twists (“America’s Player”) that went nowhere. Yet last Thursday, producers let viewers vote during the show for a temptation that would be offered during the live challenge: something that had real potential to impact the game in real time. Big Brother needs more of this, and The Glass House gave it–and other shows–some things it should steal. Even if this show is cancelled, I’ll bet we see its influence over the next few years
  • Ori, The Glass House oracle, is the summer’s break-out reality star. On day one of the live feeds, it was hard to make sense of a stilted, awkward, pseudo-robotic voice that was acting as host. It seemed like a joke. But the Oracle or Ori, as she quickly became known, developed along with the show, and became truly hilarious. The stilted, awkward voice actually has a lot of personality, far more than many reality TV show hosts, and I am not exaggerating. Ori has been quick-witted and reactive to what’s actually happening, and it’s often hilarious. We may not know who the person is behind the voice, other than the fleeting glimpse I got of her, but she deserves to keep her job keeping us entertained.

So, ABC, please renew The Glass House, and save Ori–and maybe help save network reality television competitions from their rut, too.

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