Summer reality TV is television’s equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup: cheaper, ubiquitous, and similar in taste, at least until you compare it to the real thing.
As school ended and stifling heat rolled across the United States, broadcast networks used to fill their evening hours with reruns. Those who fled their living rooms on vacation wouldn’t miss anything, and others could play catch-up with series they’d missed.
That officially ended seven years ago, when CBS launched “Survivor” in the summer and drew 51 million viewers for its final episode, 15 million more than “American Idol” has ever seen for its finale. Now, networks fill their schedules with a combination of reality shows and repeats of their best series.
That these shows often draw fewer viewers than repeats of scripted shows says something about their quality, but still, 13 of the top 20 network shows last week were unscripted shows, many of which are now summer staples. Some of those reality-based programs are simply are modern game shows, such as FOX’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”, while ABC’s “Just for Laughs” is yet another hidden camera prankfest.
Cable often offers higher quality, even if not quite as many people are watching: Bravo’s third “Top Chef” has moved away from interpersonal conflict to re-focus on food and the talents of its contestants; HGTV’s “Design Star 2” is searching for an interior designer to host an actual show on the network. But cable also offers fun, like the second season of SciFi’s “Who Wants to be a Superhero?” the Stan Lee-hosted search for a new comic book superhero on which grown men and women dress in tights and compete in creative challenges that test their superhero attributes.
Of the summer network reality TV shows, “Big Brother” is the oldest; it was just the third American broadcast network reality show. A reliably ridiculous and sometimes disturbing series that locks strangers in a house for three months and lets us watch as they chew each other apart, “Big Brother” also has the ability to consume more of viewers’ time than any other series.
Besides airing three hours every week on CBS, the activity in the house is broadcast live 24 hours a day on the Internet, and now three hours a night on Showtime Too. Those outlets offer plenty of opportunities to watch people sit around, sleep, and fight due to their isolation-induced paranoia. This season the house features a man who calls himself “Evil Dick” and has done his best to prove that both parts of his name are accurate descriptions, and another who’s being forced make game choices (like who to vote for) based upon viewer polls.
With its ridiculous challenges and lack of any kind of coherent purpose, it’s no “American Idol,” and it’s one of the few shows airing this summer that aren’t poor carbon copies of FOX’s behemoth.
Everyone wants to be ‘Idol’
Leading the pack as summer’s most popular show is NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” which is essentially “American Idol” for people who are older than 28, or have talents other than being able to sing karaoke. Between the singing and the structure, “America’s Got Talent” is the most worthy and most obvious summertime heir to “American Idol”’s audience.
The show changed judges (Brandy was replaced by Sharon Osbourne) and hosts (Jerry Springer stepped in for Regis Philbin), but it’s retained its generally jovial nature, despite the presence of an irritable British judge. As the contestants narrow, the show’s finalists are now mostly people whose talent is singing, but generally with some twist, a quartet of large singers or a ventriloquist with a singing puppet, for example.
If there’s a trend this summer, it’s that people love watching other people sing—badly. FOX’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and NBC’s “The Singing Bee,” which are both essentially game shows, have different structures but the same core concept: They ask contestants to remember song lyrics.
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Other talent-based shows also borrow from “American Idol.” FOX follows its blockbuster spring series with its popular reality competition, “So You Think You Can Dance.” The series is often praised for the true skill that its competitors bring to the stage, and that explains why it’s solidly among the top three shows among viewers ages 18 to 49, and in the top five among overall viewers. Like singing, dancing makes for great television.
More often than not, however, the “American Idol” clones are insufferably produced wastes of time, like FOX’s “On the Lot.” Despite coming from Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, the show has featured increasingly strong short films made by talented young directors, but their talent is lost in the blatant but failed attempt to copy “Idol”’s format.
One of “Idol”’s judges, Simon Cowell, executive produces another summer talent competition, ABC’s “American Inventor,” which has better ratings than “On the Lot” but isn’t much easier to watch. The series, which just ended its second season, really owes itself to the inventor of the montage, because it’s basically a series of sappily edited clip packages, and long, awkward pauses, with some intriguing and inventive products thrown in between montages and commercials. ABC’s “The Next Best Thing,” a competition between celebrity impersonators, offered the reverse: incredibly entertaining talent but not much else.
Some shows pretend to focus on talent but are really about something else. Such is the case with the third season of FOX’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” which places alleged chefs into a created-for-television restaurant’s kitchen so that chef Gordon Ramsay can scream profanities and occasionally smash their poorly made food onto their white chef jackets.
In other words, it’s totally fun and forgettable, and thus perfect for summer consumption.
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