Pop Culture

Why do reality shows recycle contestants?

Many colleges give their students a January term, where they can choose to take classes or not. Reality TV didn't give its viewers the same kind of break.

Not only did "American Idol" and "The Apprentice" start up again last week, but "Survivor" is on its way back for February, and "The Amazing Race" and "America's Next Top Model" are on deck for March. It's an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment, depending on your viewpoint.

Q: Why do some reality shows allow contestants to be on after they were already on another show?  For example, Sam from ‘The Apprentice’ was on ‘Dog Eat Dog’; Allison from ‘Big Brother’ was on ‘The Amazing Race’ and Rob and Amber from Survivor are going to be on the next ‘Amazing Race.’ Haven’t those two won ENOUGH money?    —Amy, Missouri

A: With the proliferation of reality television, the world has, apparently, run out of people willing to eat cow rectums, search for a life partner, or live in a house with strangers. How else could we explain the recurrence of familiar faces on “The Bachelor,” the appearances of personalities like Toni “Yahtzee!” Ferrari on multiple shows such as “Love Cruise” and “Paradise Hotel,” or even the existence of a series like “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge”? Viewers with good memories will notice people popping up all over the place, like current “Bachelorette 3” bachelor Jerry, who was previously seen working as a jewelry store doorman on “The Real World.”

There are two schools of thought as to why this happens: One is that producers believe that viewers like the people so much we want them to return. “Survivor All-Stars” and other shows that bring back champions to play again definitely have this in mind. And some series populate their casts with familiar faces, possibly in the hope that they’ll draw new viewers. “The Amazing Race 7,” for example, will feature “Survivor” couple Rob and Amber, while “The Amazing Race 5” featured Alison from “Big Brother” and her boyfriend, Donnie.

The other reason why cast members keep popping up is that producers are desperate for people, or just severely lazy, only looking to other series to cast their new shows. Jen Schefft is currently starring in “The Bachelorette.” Previously, she found love on “The Bachelor” after Andrew Firestone selected her. But they broke up, and she’s back again, eager to once again use this process to find a mate. And MTV is having more ratings success with “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge” than with “Road Rules,” which is why they’re not renewing “Road Rules” but are bringing back the reunion show for two more seasons. If we watch, they’ll keep coming back.    —A.D.

Q: How old do you have to be to try out for ‘American Idol’? I'm a shower singer and I'm 43 years old. Next year I'm gonna try out if there's no age limit.    --Rhoda

A: You've passed the "Idol" age limit by 15 years. This year, "American Idol" raised its age limit four years, to 28 from 24. Can you sing country? doesn't appear to have an age limit (past finalists have been in their 40s, winner Buddy Jewell was 41 when he won it all). But that show has already selected performers for its third season, which starts March 1 on USA.

Your best bet might be the copycat "Idol" contests put on by many local TV stations. The prizes aren't as large, but they're more likely to have lax age requirements.

But then again ... does "shower singer" mean you sound good only with the water running loudly? "Idol" viewers would agree there's more than one of this year's who should have stayed in the shower.    —G.F.C.

Q: What is the first reality show?    —Melissa

A: To answer that, we need to define "reality show," which is a subject of some debate. If you mean "reality show" in the sense of a show where cameras just followed ordinary people around, you can't overlook and its many sequels. The fascinating documentary follows children from different background, starting at age 7 and checking back in with them every 7 years after that. I think of "7 Up" more as a documentary though, since you couldn't watch it regularly on television.

In America, often gets the nod as first American reality show. The weekly show, then just called a 12-hour documentary, followed the Loud family, Pat, Bill and their children. Americans who tuned in saw Pat ask Bill for a divorce on-camera and son Lance come out as a gay man to his family. ( went on to be a writer and gay activist before his death in 2001.)

Reality TV was quiet for a while, although there are certainly various dating shows and specials that could be considered reality shows. But in 1992, soap-opera producer and partner Jon Murray, whose background was in news and documentaries, created "The Real World." The show combined both Bunim's soap-opera days and Murray's documentary experience, putting seven strangers in a furnished house and just letting the cameras roll. The since that first New York season, but it's not going anywhere. MTV just .

But many people still credit the return of the modern reality show to the 2000 debut of "Survivor." "Survivor" was (and is) a primetime show that combines competition with soap opera with the kind of Candid Camera feel of "American Family" and "Real World." It also introduced U.S. viewers to producer Mark Burnett, who went on to have a hand in "The Apprentice," "The Restaurant," "The Casino," "Commando Nanny" and other shows.    —G.F.C.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com’s Television Editor. Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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