Where Have All The Writers Gone?

Where have all the writers gone? That's the question some people probably ask as they flick through their available television channels during “primetime.” Network and cable programs have shifted away from the situation comedies and dramas that were prevalent during the 1970s and 80s and toward what has been dubbed “reality television,” a new genre of programming that is hallmarked by high stakes competitions where the “winners” receive prizes such a million dollars or a recording contract. The act of watching other people's lives unfold is not a new phenomenon—in the publishing world, the memoir genre has been popular for years—but it is only within the last decade that the lives of other Americans have been beamed directly into our homes via television waves. The reason behind the plethora of such viewing fare is, undoubtedly, financial: reality TV is big money to networks. The question is, why have the reality programs become so popular? Could it be that the American masses are merely bored? Perhaps it is that viewers are drawn to the competition of such programs. Perhaps it is nothing more than a widespread case of voyeurism.

The real beginnings of the reality TV genre started in 1999 with the advent of the CBS series, Survivor , wherein sixteen people are dumped into some third-world toilet and expected to form bonds of “alliance” to better their own position and not be booted from the “game” and a chance at a million dollars. The series was originally touted as a game show, but quickly became a crack in the wall of the participants' privacy. The sudden and extreme popularity of the show began a boom of reality programming and even spawned catch phrases: “the tribe has spoken,” and “voted off the island.” Within a year of Survivor 's debut, there were dozens of these shows on a wide range of topics varying from romance to sports, from competitions to construction.

Fans of reality television state that, while some of the programs on the airwaves are undesirable, there are some “wholesome” shows. One instance is The Learning Channel's Junkyard Wars, which appeals more to the male population. In this tableau, teams of contestants are pitted against one another to construct some useless contraption for a competition using the devices at the end of the show. Proponents of reality TV state that shows like this are harmless because they are learning tools: viewers are taught about the intricacies of mechanics. The problem with this argument is that, when it comes down to the bottom line, the viewers really aren't learning anything. Most fans of the show pick their favorite testosterone-driven team and then hope for something to go wrong with the duct taped and spot welded contrivance the other team built.

The competition aspect of many of the reality television shows on the air today might be one of the selling points to many viewers. Rather like watching a football or baseball game, the thrill of seeing your favorite person or team do well is appealing to, apparently, millions of viewers. Some might even say that the habit of watching reality television is simply addictive in the same way that gambling is addictive: pick the winner, and you, too, will win. The thought that just by backstabbing other people someone could win a million dollars is perversely attractive as is watching a talented singer make his or her way into the finals of a televised competition only to be degraded by one of the professional judges. One element of this desire to watch a game unfolding may come from the natural human desire to accomplish something personally: by choosing a favorite and watching that person win, a viewer gets to vicariously live through the success of someone else.

Though studies will likely be done into the next millennia into the reasons the twenty-first century American public is glued to “real life” on television, the answer may lie in the human psyche: we like to see other people's disappointments, pleasures, and, most of all, their sex lives. The nosy neighbor has become the American “everyman.”