Last night, the lovely Joan Rivers was awarded the title of “The Apprentice” on Donald Trump’s show, now in it’s…hmm, well, I don’t know what season they’re in anymore. I stopped watching years ago. Frankly, the only people I remember are Bill someone-or-other (because he won the first season and smokes cigars), Omarosa no-last-name-needed (because I met her again recently and she is fierce), and Rebecca Jarvis (who I crush on when I watch her report on CNBC).
Reality television programming is dying a very, very slow death. Who can’t see this coming? Older brands like The Apprentice, Survivor, and American Idol simply have lost their buzz, and many others are completely gone from our minds (remember Paradise Hotel?) Even a relatively good, relatively new show like The Hills is based on an older show, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, practically a distant memory now. (Trust me, I used to live in Orange County, and I loved it, but once you get past talking about blondes, the beach, and beer there’s little more material to build on.) Sure, some of these shows still make money, but which direction are the trendlines pointing? The reality television bubble is ready to pop.
But is reality entertainment played out, as well? Not hardly. Most everyone loves people watching. Freelancers sitting in Starbucks looking at each other pretending to work on laptops practically passes for a reasonable business model. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers mine Twitter for gossip and news and jobs and the newest battle-of-the-geeks-they-don’t-know. Facebook is making it easier and easier to stalk your best friends, your worst enemies, and people you’d like to know in cities you don’t live in. Television channels like E! remain popular, Ryan Seacrest has four jobs, and magazines like People still fly off the shelves as they report on every triviality of celebrity life. No extra pound is too small, no frenemy too obscure, no vacation too remote to report on.
Let’s face it. We love reality, and the masters of the genre know it. Ashton Kutcher has a million Twitter followers, yes, but others are quickly catching on to the new interface between emerging personal media technologies and personalized public relations. None other than Paris Hilton has recently been Twittering her way through a weeklong beach paradise vacation with her boyfriend. Reporting that the paparazzi hadn’t found her yet, she herself was photographing and publishing their experience for thousands of her fans. How long before she is using a Flip cam or live streaming on Qik? (How long until her publicist has to take a pay cut?)
Less popular but still interesting people are doing the same things. Blogger and Air America Radio personality Ana Marie Cox spent her weekend reporting live from the events surrounding the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – just using her phone. Her photos and witty comments are sent to nearly 500,000 followers – more than the average cable television news program has tuning in. Even a relatively less famous blogger like me has an amusing, snarky impersonator, who in a bizzaro fashion is really just publicizing my brand of writing to an audience of non-traditional fans.
One can only conclude from this that reality entertainment is raging, but not in the usual places. It’s hard to imagine a reality television show in its current form based around me, or Ana Marie Cox – yet we’re popular, at least in microniches. Television doesn’t yet exploit that fact.
It’s time for an infusion of new media technology into the medium formerly known as television. Here’s the current strategy: TV networks record attractive people facing hard challenges under interesting circumstances 24 hours a day for months and then air less than one hour of that a week. Whose bright idea was this for 2009?
It’s hard to believe that nothing interesting happens during the other 167.4 hours. The viewers don’t care about TV producers, directors, and editors. They don’t care about production costs and marketing deals and advertising tie-ins and intellectual property. They watch shows because they want to know what people are doing, and traditional networks are withholding that information. Viewers now want to decide what’s interesting and useful in those “extra” hours. They want that power, as unreasonable as it may seem.
Reality television shows are carefully crafted into storylines and so arguably they are not showing “true reality,” which the raw footage would then reveal. But does anyone care? Would this spoil some grand surprise? Maybe from time to time, but surely at this point most people have pulled the wool back from their eyes. Viewers know it’s altered reality – but they are willing to suspend logic in the interest of being entertained and distracted from their own reality.
Moreover, the all-important Gen Y viewership wants to reinterpret everything, mash it up with other video clips, add soundtracks of hip hop music, share their creations with friends, mine it for ideas and innuendo, and use it in amateur films. Viewers want to “democratize” the footage. Fair or not – that’s what increasingly tech-savvy audiences want – they want to participate in reality. Although this cult of the amateur produces a lot of garbage, it’s also true that there are diamonds in the rough – and struggling entertainment companies always on the lookout for the next thing should be keen to polish those rare gems.
What’s my advice? Free the footage, I say to television networks and production companies and movie studios. Break down the barriers to participation and collaboration. Create repositories where hours of raw footage can live and be reused ad infinitum under a Creative Commons license. Even better, provide a platform like YouTube where these amateur film directors can upload the creations they’ve made with your footage. Better still, have them create user profiles and recruit the cream of the crop for an internship program within the company. Create the next generation of employees and let them have fun during an informal application process that gets their creative juices flowing. Because my wager is that they’ve got your next great idea.
This article originally appeared in my column at True/Slant.