At the start of a new decade, a TV program based on an overseas concept premieres in the U.S. Featuring ordinary people, the show becomes an instant ratings hit, fueling discussion about the wider implications for network television.
Would the answer be “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a British transplant? “Survivor,” CBS’ Swedish export? Or perhaps “Big Brother,” that network’s soon-to-premiere Dutch treat?
Try “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” introduced as an ABC series in 1990. Hosted by Bob Saget, the show quickly vaulted to the top of the prime-time ratings, prompting hand-wringing about whether a camcorder-toting generation with a taste for “reality” would spell the death of conventional sitcoms and dramas.
Based on a segment within a Tokyo Broadcasting System program called “Fun With Ken and Kato Chan,” “Videos” even spurred controversy. Indeed, a former screener let The Times’ Howard Rosenberg view rejected submissions that suggested some people were putting their children and pets in harm’s way seeking to appear on the show--including footage of a dog being set loose to kill a pet bunny and several seemingly staged videos that placed kids at risk, among them a little girl in a party dress allowed to climb a slide and descend into a mud puddle, hitting her head and crying.
The show added on-air disclaimers to tape safely, but some still wondered if the format encouraged dangerous behavior, all in pursuit of a $10,000 weekly payout that preceded a season-ending $100,000 bonanza.
Aside from prize inflation, the more things change, the more they seemingly stay the same.
“Home Videos” producer Vin Di Bona has watched first the game show “Millionaire” and now “Survivor” mirror some of the hoopla that surrounded his program. And while the endurance of these new hits remains in question (“Videos” ran for nearly a decade, giving rise to a host of imitators and the spin-off “America’s Funniest People”), Di Bona is hardly surprised to see the pattern repeating itself.
“The ability to take a video camera and go in different directions has opened up new kind of shows for television,” Di Bona said. “The crucial thing that ‘Millionaire’ brought back to us was the acceptance [that] everyday people are interesting.”
Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, was at the network when “Videos” made its debut and cut his teeth developing variety shows. He, too, sees parallels in the reality cycle that go back even further, to the arrival of “Real People” and “That’s Incredible” in 1979 and ’80, respectively.
“I don’t think anything dies,” Bloomberg said, referring to program genres. “The nice thing that ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ and ‘Millionaire’ did was show that people will accept [different formats] in prime time again. I never understood it when people said, ‘That doesn’t feel like a prime-time show.’ ”
The climate has changed so rapidly that Di Bona is pitching a revival of “The Big Moment,” a program that premiered on ABC a little more than a year ago and was summarily canceled. The show takes an ordinary person, assigns them some bizarre task--riding a unicycle through an obstacle course, or memorizing pi to the hundredth decimal point--watches him or her train, then sees how well the contestant performs in front of an audience, with prize money on the line.
Still, producers remain divided on whether the new voyeuristic variation on reality is a novelty or destined for longevity. CBS has already announced plans to stage another round of “Survivor,” for broadcast early next year.
“I don’t think people eating rats and termites with a camera [on them] is experiencing ‘reality,’ ” quipped producer George Schlatter--who developed “Laugh-In” in the 1960s and “Real People” a decade later--in reference to “Survivor.” “The good news is there is now so much of it, it is such an avalanche, that it won’t last long.”
Although a self-described fan of “Survivor,” Di Bona is more unsure.
“The one thing ‘Videos’ had that is a common denominator is humor,” he said. “People love to laugh. I think that’s what brought them back. . . . I don’t know that a different island [actually, the Australian Outback] is going to be that important to me. Different people? Perhaps.”
Reality programs, of course, have consistently demonstrated their ability to attract viewers, especially those concepts willing to push the boundaries of taste. Despite giving rise to jokes at the network’s expense, Fox drew big ratings with the specials “When Animals Attack” and “World’s Scariest Police Chases,” just as the much-lampooned “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” attracted more than 23 million viewers, easily winning its time slot.
Strong Results on Cable Channels
While somewhat less gaudy, results for the genre on cable have been equally impressive. The latest edition of MTV’s “The Real World” premiered to almost 4 million viewers, behind only the World Wrestling Federation among cable programs.
Looking at where the so-called reality genre and newsmagazines have gone, Schlatter laughs at the memory that “Real People” was once derided for where it was taking television.
“They criticized ‘Real People’ for blurring the lines” between news and entertainment, he recalled. “Well, now they’ve erased the lines. There is no more news. It’s all entertainment. . . .
“There will always be trash TV. There’s trash music, there’s trash books, there’s trash art. But we don’t have to watch it. There’s also a lot of good TV.”
Despite the popularity of these formats, both Di Bona and Bloomberg pointed out that several dramatic series enjoyed banner years, with new programs such as “Judging Amy” and “The West Wing” catching on as well. Although ABC scheduled just one new drama series for the fall while adding a fourth edition of “Millionaire,” Bloomberg rejected suggestions that the success of game and reality shows must inevitably come at the expense of scripted series.
“Great storytelling and characters will always be a part of great television and great literature,” he said.
Still, these programs have occupied time slots and stolen attention that otherwise might have gone to more conventional series. On the plus side, the popularity of low-cost programming alternatives such as “Survivor” or “Millionaire” has offered independent producers a chance to regain a little shelf space on the major networks--at the same time, some say, providing a small reminder to corporate decision-makers.
“No matter how many development people they have, no matter how much they look for synergy,” Di Bona said, “if you don’t have a good idea, you don’t have anything.”