Happy Birthday Dad.
Maybe, just maybe, the reality TV craze is ending. Or at least receding.
On Monday night, New episodes of reality TV shows got lower ratings than reruns of scripted shows on other networks.
ABC finished 4th among the major networks. A two hour episode of The Bachelorette took in less than 7 million viewers. The Mole followed up with just 4 million.
Meanwhile, reruns of House and Bones on Fox doubled up ABC. So did a rerun of CBS' CSI: Miami. I know it's just one night, so I can't call it a trend. But these numbers are encouraging.
I'm not saying that reality tv is disappearing. Just that it's slowly exiting the network TV stage. In 2000-01, just as the reality craze was taking hold, networks collectively aired 7 reality shows. This included Fox's COPS and America's Most Wanted, arguably two of the original reality tv series, and definitely the most persistent. The list also included the second installment of Survivor which was then making weekly headlines (remember Richard Hatch, the naked guy who won the first one?), and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which isn't a reality show so much as a game show, but Millionaire proved that networks could stop trying to fill each time slot with something different, as it aired the Regis Philbin quizzer 3, sometimes 4 or even 5 days a week.
By 2004-05, the craze was in full swing. Networks offered 31 reality shows that year, from standbys like Survivor, American Idol, and The Amazing Race, to more forgettable programs like My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, Life of Luxury, and Renovate My Family. And of course, COPS and America's Most Wanted. You could say the network tv landscape was oversaturated with cheaply made, poorly planned reality garbage. And you'd be (with a few exceptions) right.
In 2007-08, before the writer's strike, only 17 reality shows hit the networks, and a similar amount is planned for '08-'09. 17 is still a lot, but here's the thing: many are really game shows (Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, Deal or No Deal, Don't Forget the Lyrics), not reality shows. And even more striking is the fact of the 17 planned for '08-'09, only one (Opportunity Knocks) is new. And that one's borrowed from Britain. And of course 2 of them are COPS and America's Most Wanted.
Sidebar: why are COPS and America's Most Wanted still on, and are they really making new episodes? And is anybody watching? Really?
The bulk of reality TV has been relegated to Cable. Chances are, you have one vice or another (mine is Top Chef) you stalk on Bravo, VH1, MTV, or the Learning Channel (or Discovery, or Food Network, etc.) The genre has been diced up into subgenres like competition and celeb reality and others. And I'm convinced the channel selection would contract significantly if people suddenly stopped watching reality TV altogether.
But network TV is and should be held to a higher standard. Bigger budgets, yes, but also higher quality shows with more of a chance at becoming part of the greater public conversation. The reality shows that have stuck on network tv are the ones that have become fixtures in American pop culture (American Idol, Dancing With the Stars) are just plain better than most other offerings (The Amazing Race, Survivor) or for some reason still pull big ratings (The Bachelor, Extreme Makeover Home Edition). We want quality on network TV, keep the crap on cable (and we want R-rated quality on HBO and Showtime)
Reality raised the bar for Sitcoms and Dramas, and those shows are living up to the challenge with quality offerings. Quality enough that a rerun of a good drama is more popular than a new episode of a piece of crap reality show. Cable knows this. The premiere of the second season of the drama Army Wives just became Lifetime's highest rated show ever. And more and more cable shows are ending up with emmy nominations.
Some say we're living in the golden age of television right now. I have to agree, except I miss The West Wing. Because we have so many choices as consumers, producers can't just throw crap at us all the time. So half the reality junk food has gone away, leaving room for a well-balanced meal on Network TV.
Now if only Fox would cancel COPS.