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the year in reality TV, 2004.

the year in reality TV, 2004.
By Andy Dehnart

Although television as a whole saw a lot of change (from the end of Friends to the beginning of Deadwood), reality TV was the year in which we basically treaded water. There was a whole new season of American Idol, and still Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson are the dominant idols. We started and ended with a 30-something white male Apprentice. Still, the reality television landscape altered dramatically this year, which has seen everything from the death of a reality TV pioneer to the reintroduction of The Donald via reality TV. Here, then, are seven standout things about reality television from the past 12 months. Have a happy new year; reality blurred will return in 2005.

  1. The Donald is the new Paris Hilton. Every year has an overexposed reality TV star. In previous years, it was the Osbournes and Simon Cowell. Last year, it was Paris Hilton, who was literally exposed in ways that made many people throw up into their sinus cavities. This year, it’s Donald Trump. The show made everything he did outside of the show worthy of coverage, from his business decisions to his personal life. That coverage is close to reaching the critical mass that Paris coverage reached long ago. The shows are one thing; the neverending coverage of their lives is something else altogether. Can or be that far off?
  2. The Amazing Race reaches a new high and a new low. This was the year that the world finally woke the f up and realized that The Amazing Race is currently the best-produced reality show on television. It has human drama, heart-stopping action, and unmatched scenery. This year, it also had inspirational cast members (Charla!) and a belligerent, abusive dick of a husband (Jonathan). That took it from an all-time high to an unexpected low in just about two months time. This, plus the stunt casting, and failure of the show to make its contestants take responsibility for their actions, combine and make the show come dangerously close to turning from a guilty pleasure into a guilty displeasure. Phil and company: It’s time to Philimenate the dumbing down of our favorite show. Don’t make us hate you.
  3. Overreaction is the name of the game. Undoubtedly, the biggest TV story of the year was Nipplegate. The horror of seeing a mostly-exposed breast was too much for the nation; compared to Janet Jackson’s breast, Abu Gharib was nothing. Its effects reverberated throughout the nation, and not even reality TV was immune. That eventually led to the biggest FCC fine in history, which was bestowed upon a FOX reality special. Elsewhere, Laguna Beach‘s production was impacted, and late in the year Mark Burnett even kept a kiss off Survivor Vanuatu because of the post-nipple climate. You’d think we have more important things to care about.
  4. Washed-up reality stars are appetizing. Do we need to know about Ethan Zahn’s cuticles? (Well, evidently, since I posted about it. But never mind me.) From Survivor All-Stars fueling of Rupert rage to American Idol 3‘s fostering of William Hung’s fame to Big Brother 4 idiot Alison joining The Amazing Race, reality TV stars stayed long after they were welcome. William Hung was funny for about 35 seconds, but once he got record deal offers, and then started releasing albums, the laughter died but the joke kept on rolling. This seems to be the new rule of the game, and is often amusing, but on some level we wish reality stars would just entertain us for a few minutes and then disappear. It’s only fair.
  5. Repeats ruled, but copycats failed. A number of shows gave us multiple seasons, like The Apprentice, America’s Next Top Model, and Last Comic Standing. Although the ratings might not have held up to the previous season’s standards, generally cramming multiple seasons into one year worked for the networks. However, what didn’t succeed were the knock-offs. While some knock-offs improve upon the original–witness Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which is essentially an acid-trip version of Trading Spaces–most failed, thankfully. FOX was the worst culprit, Xeroxing every concept it liked. But its copycat shows tended to bomb (particularly The Next Great Champ) as did other shows that were even vaguely reminiscent of other series (such as The Benefactor). Both the networks and the media are to blame for this; networks want to springboard off of other shows’ successes, and the media’s small vocabulary makes description beyond simplistic comparison difficult. Maybe they’ll learn their lesson in 2005. Probably not.
  6. Reality TV is here to stay, and it does the nation good. Despite the dominance of reality TV in the ratings and the proliferation of reality on the fall schedule, reality television remained our nation’s favorite piñata even as it grew and finally earned a permanent seat at the table. Along the way, it’s done some good that even the most rabid reality TV haters can appreciate. One lesson network execs learned from reality: summer is not a wasteland to be ignored. We’re now in a 365-day TV cycle, and everyone benefits. And maybe with the failure of knock-off shows, as noted above, maybe networks will learn that cheap knock-offs do not succeed, but creative new projects–whether they’re scripted (like Lost and Desperate Housewives) or reality–will succeed.
  7. If reality TV is staged, no one cares. In late January, the original Joe Millionaire tried to tell us that his show was staged; in December, a columnist produced a script that he said proved Queer Eye is scripted, while others said it proved nothing. Although some people were all, “See, I told you losers that it was fake! Na na!”, most people didn’t really care. They realize that their reality TV is real life crafted into entertainment, and that it’s reality, well, blurred. And that’s just fine.

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