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Where’s the 'real' in reality?

By Pat Quinn 10-09-2014

It’s been a rough summer for reality TV premieres in the US, and this begs the question: Why isn’t anyone watching anymore?

ABC took the most swings and launched two major shows. The Quest was a fantasy-based reality competition series that built upon the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games, and centred on a fantasy world called Everealm.

Married at First Sight

Married at First Sight

Fully costumed competitors – or Paladins – competed in challenges set on location at an Austrian castle. Magical places, mythical beasts and Verlox – the force of darkness – characterised The Quest, which assumed that the trappings of popular fantasy movies attract an audience. The Quest debuted at the end of July with a soft opening (0.7 rating, 3 share in the 18-49 demo) and never really caught on.

The other highly anticipated premiere, Rising Star, was based on the successful Keshet International format. Interactivity through a real-time voting app and audience engagement were viewed as the key to counteracting audience fatigue that’s resulted from talent competition show saturation. We all wondered, Could this be the next The Voice? Celebrity experts and the home audience voted for contestants and got to see their photos and their votes on screen during the show. Despite strong production values and marketing, 18-49 ratings never rose more than the 1.54 the premiere achieved in June.

With this frustrating summer almost behind them, network execs and agents want the predictable, formats with a ratings history and talent attached, and documentary series with larger-than-life family or work ensembles. The last big network hit was The Voice while the last cable hit was Duck Dynasty.

So where is the ‘real’ in reality television? Research shows that millennials want authenticity when it comes to unscripted content. It seems ironic to look for authenticity in a produced television show, but I am looking for it, too. I found it this year in two low-tech, inexpensive cable shows and became an ardent viewer.

The first show, Married at First Sight, produced by Kinetic Content and based on a Red Arrow International format, premiered on the new channel FYI on July 8. Billed as a “social experiment,” the show featured relationship experts evaluating the compatibility of men and women using interviews and questionnaires.

Three couples met for the first time at their wedding, a real legal marriage and an arranged marriage. During 10 episodes, the couples went on a honeymoon, moved in together, and met family and friends. This could have been glamorous, glossed-over reality television, but the couples were actually middle class, normal-looking, unspectacular specimens. Like many millennials, two of the men lived at home with their parents while one of the women was mired in student debt. They were real.

The show is a highly watchable, dynamic and visceral view of the vulnerabilities and failures that result from creating intimacy and a relationship. The couples shed tears and encounter psychological walls, stubbornness and irritation from their partners – and claustrophobia. The show captures the participants’ reactions that seem to come from ‘inside,’ and their pain and struggle are touching. It all feels authentic.

I was rooting for them to decide to stay together at the end of this highly visible social experiment. Married at First Sight has been a bright spot for FYI. It earned a 14% share in the key demo and it occupies many spots on the five most-watched shows lists.

Also breaking into the artificial world of reality television, Catfish shined in its third season on MTV. Based on Nev Schulman’s 2010 film Catfish, about his own misadventures in online dating, it depicts the millennials’ unwavering belief that instantaneous digital connections can deliver real love.

In each episode, Schulman and Max Joseph read an email from a hopeful romantic partner who wants their help to finally meet the online love with whom they’ve been communicating and interacting for so long. Contestants divulge nuggets such as: “I have told him more than I’ve told anyone” and “I can’t go on with my life without meeting her; I am really in love.”

Just as in Married at First Sight, Catfish’s participants are middle class, living in impersonal or depressing surroundings they yearn to escape. We as audience members hope their dreams will be fulfilled, yet we’re cautioned by our hosts’ wisdom and experience even as the poison of digital matchmaking reveals itself.

The perpetrator, or ‘catfish,’ is not, after all, a purported supermodel or a hip-hop star, or even true to the gender they professed. In real life, catfish steal photos and profiles of beautiful men and women, assume their identities and act out with their online suitors.

The authenticity of the show rivets us as we share the hopefuls’ fear, anticipation and shock. And the catfish, now caught, asks innocently: “Why can’t you love me anyway? Everything I said online is true, except…”

The show forces us to examine the universal desire for a beautiful accomplished mate, a fairy prince or princess, just waiting to meet us. Hope and fantasy prevail over the inevitable disappointment.

As viewers, we got hooked on early reality television when it felt genuine and unscripted. So it’s no surprise that this summer’s 10th season of The Bachelorette on ABC – a chronicle of love, relationships and mating –drew its lowest ratings ever. Originally a reality dating competition show, the venerable former favourite has morphed into a travelogue and beauty pageant, replete with uncomfortable situations that scream ‘plotted’ and ‘scripted.’

Example: The lack of genuine sentiment was best expressed when the bachelor and contestant said to bachelorette Andi, “I’ve been really open with you. I feel like you’re not being [the real] Andi with me. I came to this to meet a person, not a TV actress.” He was quickly eliminated from the show after Andi, who was outraged, began to cry.

We all seek a deeper, human connection – even in our reality shows. Where is the real in reality and what are we missing?

today's correspondent

Pat Quinn Founder Quinn Media Management

Pat Quinn, of Los Angeles-based media consultancy Quinn Media Management, creates strategic partnerships for international companies that also open doors to profitable new revenue streams in the US. Her company specialises in routes to market, acquisitions, programming and business development.

Pat is an international format expert and represents the creators of international television series. She led the Big Mountain Productions team, setting up Geneaology Roadshow on PBS. She was also instrumental in Wild Rover Productions’ summer run of Take the Money and Run on ABC.