When will a broadcast network take a risk and air a non-competition show?

NBC’s reality executive, Paul Teledgy, was recently asked about why NBC, CBS, Fox, and ABC don’t air cable-style reality shows, such as those about hard-core jobs. He told The Hollywood Reporter,

“I just don’t think there are prizes in broadcast for re-expressing what cable does so well, and the business model is different. We have one chance to get a rating. I love shows like Swamp People, but I can dip in and out because they have a kind of disposability to them, which works on cable. On broadcast, it’s about, ‘How do we reward you for being here?’ There need to be outcomes and stakes in every episode.”

Earlier this summer, ABC entertainment president Paul Lee was asked about reality TV when he appeared in front of TV critics, and said,

“Reality is hard because it’s very much more difficult now to find the shock of the new. You know, I truly believe that it is a it’s a mature genre. It’s like comedy, it’s like drama. In drama, you have your procedurals, you have your soaps, you have your different types of dramas. And very much so in reality, you have your makeovers. You have your reality soaps. You have your talent shows. You have your thrown off the islands. And so I think the key is in execution and making sure that you have got a hook that you can bring people on.”

While both executives believe in reality TV, their answers share a common, disturbing rationale for why networks are now stuck in a deep rut of formatted shows, which follow a clear template and have, allegedly, what Teledgy described: “outcomes and stakes in every episode.” Of the reality shows airing on broadcast this fall, nearly all are competition series. Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares and ABC’s Shark Tank are the only ones that fall a little bit outside the mold, but they’re both very clearly formatted. (Update: I forgot about Undercover Boss, but it’s the same difference: each episode has the same format, with the payoff/”prize” at the end.)

That’s what we get from broadcast TV now: fill-in-the-blank shows. We can easily make fun of Big Brother for that because it fills in its blanks in such a ham-fisted way, but really, that’s the game now. Find a formula and format, stuff some people and “twists” into it, roll the cameras.

Networks have experimented with documentary style series, from Fox’s American High to 2007′s Nashville, both of which were pulled mid-run, probably making networks wary, and we all know that television is a very risk-averse businesses.

I don’t see why a series such as HBO’s Hard Knocks couldn’t succeed on broadcast, perhaps getting better ratings than other reality TV; the only real problem with broadcasting the exact same series would be the lack of time for commercials and the fucking FCC, and if networks can handle Gordon Ramsay, they can handle the NFL.

What disturbs me most is the attitude that seems to exist that there is no other possibility or option: it’s formatted/competition series or nothing else. Again, it’s that risk aversion.

Of course, it’s a lot more difficult to produce a show where you don’t know what the storyline will be until after you film it; a studio-based competition is controlled and predictable. Even a dramatic competition like Survivor is easier and safer to produce than, say, a show such as Deadliest Catch or Whale Wars. So it makes sense why producers are drawn to soft-scripted shows on cable and formatted shows on broadcast, even if that deprives us of better television.

This summer, I chased Paul Lee around ABC’s press event (literally) to ask him if there was room on broadcast networks for more than just the types of shows he described. Surprisingly, he said he agreed:

“The shock of the new would be, let’s find a show that you haven’t seen before. There’s the talent show, there’s the reality soap show–I absolutely think reality should charge itself with the task of breaking different formats. … The reality soaps, they should make their way to broadcast.”

That sounds like a challenge. Let’s hope someone–or better, everyone–meets it.

Review: Married at First Sight

Marriage At First Sight

In an era of Tinder and Grindr, instant acceptance or dismissal of a potential partner, or instant sex with another body, Married at First Sight offers the thrill of watching strangers deal with the very basics of relationships.

Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.