Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Blimey, They’ve Ripped-off Me Reality

Reality TV has been going strong now for a number of years. And though many readers are too sophisticated for this “mindless voyeurism”, or at least would like everyone to think them too sophisticated, I’ll freely admit that I’ve been sucked in on occasion. The recently-completed The Bachelor:Paris and Dancing with the Stars are examples.

I’m sure many columns, articles, and clinical studies have been done to explain the phenomenon and the psychology behind it. Wikipedia (a site Rich loves to cite) even has a pretty detailed encyclopedic entry on the genre’s history, rightfully acknowledging the debt that reality TV owes to Allen Funt and his creation Candid Camera.

But what has recently struck me is how little creative credit American producers can claim despite the incredible amount of air time that reality shows in this country demand. And how utterly dependent this cultural shift has been on Britain in particular.

While this post focuses on the example of reality TV, I fear that this may also be indicative of a trend in mainstream literature, music, and other artistic outlets. And I'm not talking about quality (or perceived quality), just originality. Where’s the American ingenuity? Have we become so bottom-line conscious and sure-thing oriented that there is no longer any room for tasteful, creative risk taking? Or have we always been this way, and I’ve only just figured it out? Anyway, back to the reality show example.

An article on realitytvworld.com describes our copy-cat behavior thusly:

“The reality TV invasion from Europe continues unabated. CBS's Survivor is adapted from the Swedish show Expedition: Robinson; Fox's American Idol is a clone of the British smash Pop Idol (complete with judge Simon Cowell); CBS's Big Brother comes from the Netherlands by way of Britain ... even Fox's Paradise Hotel comes from Britain. Now The Guardian reports that ABC is ready to go forward with the smash hit British show Wife Swap, which we reported in January was in the casting process.”

Noted culture watchtower, tvbarn.com also observes:

“BBC America, which launched in 1998, has become known for airing a seemingly endless string of popular British reality shows. Changing Rooms inspired American knockoffs such as Trading Spaces and Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Other series like What Not to Wear and gardening show Ground Force have been copied by American reality producers as well.”

The Dancing with the Stars show which I mentioned above also traces its roots to the British-born Strictly Come Dancing, even importing two of its judges from the English show.

Other shows like SuperNanny and Whose Line is it Anyway? also come quickly to mind.

And unfortunately, after you’ve seen the British originals, the American versions reek even more of stilted, staged rip-off rather than insight into reality of any kind. At tv.zap2it.com, producer Stephen Lambert describes his take on this observation:

“"A lot of British reality programming comes out of a documentary tradition," he says, "whereas a lot of American reality television comes out of a game-show tradition. I used to work for the BBC, and I used to make documentaries for 16 years. The big development for us was coming up with what we called 'formatted documentaries,' which is using the same skills as documentaries, but creating a situation which obviously wouldn't exist if you hadn't created it.

"Having created it, you very much let it run its own course. It's not overly produced. There's a great emphasis on our shows of capturing spontaneity and authenticity, whereas I think a lot of American reality shows are much more about producing each of the moments to such an extent that people often don't seem very authentic or spontaneous."”

Of course maybe I should just shut up, subscribe to BBC America, and start pitching NFL Footballers Wives to network execs over here.


Rich said...

Wikipedia (a site Rich loves to cite)

Hey! Leave me out of your Reality-TV posts, would ya? And thanks for the below-the-belt pot shot. Those are always the best ones.

Rich said...

By the way, gotcha by 11 minutes!!! My post is on top. Na-nanny-boo-boo.

DugALug said...


How about a reality show like 'Wives of Idiots'? My wife could be on it.