Ask Andy: Will we ever see another Survivor? How much is Hoarders aftercare?

Got a quick question about Hoarders, one of our favorite shows. Do you know how much the participants receive in aftercare funds? Just curious. –Jon

The unsatisfying answer: I don’t have an exact amount, in part because it varies. But here’s how aftercare works.

After I reported behind-the-scenes of A&E’s Hoarders for a Playboy feature, I talked to series producer George Butts, who explained how the system works. (Caveat: This was mid-2011, and things might have changed slightly, as he said the system continues to evolve.)

Production company Screaming Flea has has a full-time aftercare coordinator since season two. The coordinator starts doing research immediately when a location is greenlit. That person communicates with the therapist on the shoot, giving them a list of potential therapists to get advice on who might be best (for example, the therapist might have a colleague they know, or they can identify what type of therapy is best).

Within about five days of the end of a shoot, the aftercare coordinator contacts the person to let them know what’s available and make connections with aftercare providers, usually both a mental health therapist and an organizer to help continue the process.

The production company is billed directly by the aftercare therapist and organizer from “a fund, and it varies to some degree, depending upon the circumstances of the situation, but it’s a fund available to them,” Butts told me.

There’s a time limit of about six months to use it, in order to not leave it open-ended and allow procrastination. “There’s no hard and set and fast rules on it. If they’re continuing to see a therapist, that’s something that we strongly encourage, obviously. If they reach their six months, we’ll certainly extend their time period if they still have funding available in their aftercare fund,” he said.

Usually that therapy lasts six to eight months, though he said that “really enthusiastic” people have sometimes worked through that fund in a shorter period of time.

While Butts estimated that “less than half take advantage of mental health therapy,” family members have also, on occasion, been able to use the funds if the hoarder refused.

For the record, Hoarders participants are not compensated beyond the services during the shoot (in the most recent season, that’s often included work on the interior of their homes, such as new furniture) and the six months of aftercare. However, the show has used funds in “extreme cases” to help fix plumbing or other basic living needs.

Will a major network ever be able to create a new competition show involving contestants’ being eliminated one-by-one, not talent-based, that is new, not derivative of any sort (i.e. no island, house or glass house, or race around the world, or Morocco) and also get the attention/high ratings that Survivor once received in 2000-2001? Will reality television shows of the future ever be able to be original, or at least not as derivative, and still reach mainstream or high popularity like they could in 2000? And can a show created at this era, especially a elimination show and someday make a 20th season? Many spin-offs or shows with derivative formats fail to do so. Or is there just not enough effort from producers to do so? Or have they just failed? –Dan

The magic and surprise of Survivor might have been a once-in-a-generation thing, it pains me to say. Sure, American Idol did it two few years later, but even that never reached the ratings earned by Borneo’s first-season finale. And the direction in which television is moving just makes it increasingly unlikely.

First, I think copycats are endemic to the system: Television networks are inherently conservative and don’t like to take risks, so derivative shows are going to be the norm. That was true when Friends was popular; it’s true now. The broadcast networks are currently very, very fond of formatted shows, especially since their attempts at narrative, serialized reality TV haven’t taken off.

Second, as smarter people than me have written about, we’re in an era of increasing audience fragmentation, where networks cater to niche audiences, so it’s harder to have a huge break-out hit. If you’re a young woman who wants to revel in self-loathing, for example, you turn to Oxygen’s awful shows.

The most troubling part for me is that we’re also in an era of cost-cutting–networks want to producers to do more for even less money, hence all of the scripted, fake bullshit that is infecting cable and spreading too fast–and that does not make risk-taking likely.

It will happen, though. I don’t know if a single show will ever break through so powerfully to so many different audiences in the way that Survivor did, but the right producer with the right idea will talk to the right network executive, and something new and different will emerge and surprise us, even if it doesn’t capture huge audiences.

Shark Tank is a good example, even though it came from an existing format and thus wasn’t as big of a risk. In terms of non-competition shows, there have been surprise hits in the form of shows such as Animal Planet’s Whale Wars and MTV’s Jersey Shore, broke through in its first season because it was new and surprising and different and, yes, even real. Basically, anything named after some part of the ocean will be a hit.

Have a question about reality TV? Ask me!

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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.