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The Freshman TV Class of 2010-2011, Part 2: Reality Television

May 29th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

If one was inclined to read genres like tealeaves, one might find it interesting to see that 13 new sitcoms have been announced for Fall, while only 3 reality television shows are planned. Is The Age of Unscripted Television over? Granted, each network already has its tent-pole reality shows (Idol for FOX, Survivor and Amazing Race for CBS, Biggest Loser for NBC, Dancing with the Stars for ABC, and America’s Next Top Model for The CW), but it’s relevant that they’re not trying to triple up with many more.

Perhaps they’ve run out of ideas? Of course, many more objectionable, offensive, and crazy niche ideas exist for the conceiving and the making, but it may be that they’re being farmed out to the cable channels, lest ABC, for instance, need to explain how a dating show for pre-teens, or America’s Next Top Moving Company fits with its brand identity.

In the meantime, this leaves us with a small entering class.

School Pride is basically Extreme Makeover: School Edition, though the trailer made it unclear if the crew would do a different school each week or stay with the same school for a season. For the sake of seeing a wide variety of change, many viewers might hope for the former, but for the sake of dealing with due complexity and perhaps even analyzing root causes, I favor the latter. In terms of originality, the show seems uninspired, and it certainly seems to prove Laurie Ouellette and James Hay’s point in their excellent book Better Living Through Reality TV that reality TV has replaced the welfare state in our neoliberal times. But it’s hard to begrudge a program that promises to overhaul an entire school. It’s also impressive to see NBC up the ante on ABC’s EM:HE in grand style, and if ABC’s wunderkind can get the waterworks going in houses across the US, literally and figuratively, just wait to see what the School Edition can do. I’ve been very wrong before, but I can’t see this one failing.

NBC’s second newbie is America’s Next Great Restaurant. Their reality TV strategy seems quite simple: (1) Spinoff NBC’s only reality hit (hence Losing It With Jillian this summer), (2) Shamelessly copy, yet one-up, another network’s success (hence School Pride), and (3) Shamelessly copy a cable channel’s success. Here, the help comes in the form of Bobby Flay, one of the more watchable chefs on television. I have no trailer to go on, just the concept and the title. My concern is with regards location (as with School Pride, albeit to a lesser degree). Most of the other cooking shows succeed by putting the focus on the individuals, wherein place becomes unimportant. FOX’s Kitchen Nightmares roves from location to location, as does Flay’s own Throwdown. But if all the restaurant contenders are in one city, it might be hard to win the identification of viewers elsewhere, especially if that city is the big, bad New York. Personally, I’d rather watch Food Network and see the pros do it than watch NBC copy it, so consider me a skeptic.

Finally, there’s The CW’s Biggest Loser format twist, Shedding for the Wedding. Again, no trailer, just the concept – couples compete to lose weight so that they’re skinny for the wedding, and along the way they compete in challenges to win other things for the wedding (“Congratulations, you win a reprieve from having to invite all your mother’s great aunt’s bridge partners! We’re sending invitations to the wrong address for them!!” “Oh, honey, it’s just what we’ve always wanted!”). Biggest Loser already bothers me, given my suspicions that some seriously unhealthy weight loss is happening on “The Campus” (btw, isn’t that a Japanese horror film?), but once we add the fact that they’re doing it all in a manic attempt to have a “fairytale wedding” (so fairytale that nobody there will recognize them), I congratulate The CW on once again finding a show that actively encourages me to watch something else. With all that’s on television, and all that I need to catch up on, I appreciate such gestures.

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  1. October 25th, 2010 at 05:41 | #1

    Personally, I’d rather watch Food Network and see the pros do it than watch NBC copy it, so consider me a skeptic.

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