The ads for Thursday's "Survivor" premiere boast of new twists for the tenth season, set on the collective of islands known as Palau. "This time they'll be lost for real!" crows a full-page ad in Entertainment Weekly.
But viewers should be forgiven if their reaction to the hype went something like " 'Survivor'? Didn't we just have a season of 'Survivor'? Didn't win?"
Yes indeed, "Survivor" just ended in December, and yet it returns just two months later.
Not only that, but it was just a month and four days after the second season of "The Apprentice" ended in December that Donald Trump, Carolyn, George and crew had returned with a whole new coterie of Trump wannabes. Viewers barely had time to learn to tell Stacy from Stacie from Sandy when suddenly they were introduced to Tara and Tana and Todd.
True guilty pleasure "America's Next Top Model" ended in mid-December too, though it was a bit lost under the "Survivor" and "Apprentice" hype. Host Tyra Banks wasted no time rounding up a new group of wannabe models. They'll be back posing and preening March 2 on UPN.
No show is cutting it closer than "The Amazing Race," with models Freddy and Kendra taking home the million-dollar prize. "The Amazing Race" is an Emmy-winning show. It has one of the most polished and handsome hosts in Kiwi Phil Keoghan. Usually classy, with the world as its setting, it's often held up as a bellwether of the genre.
But that doesn't mean that viewers want to dive headlong into the seventh season on March 1, just three weeks after the finale of the sixth.
Risking viewer burnout
Mark Burnett, I know you think you're a genius. Networks, I know you think you've hit the ratings mother lode with reality shows. Advertisers, you seem to be fans as well — especially when you can squeeze product placements into challenges and rewards. Pringles ("Survivor") and Dove body wash ("Apprentice"), I'm talking to you.
But it seems that none of you remember the lesson every kid learned the day after Halloween: Too much, even of a seemingly good thing, can turn you off on that thing for good. In other words: Quit packing reality-show seasons so close together! You risk burning out viewers who otherwise might tune in.
Reality shows are fighting an uphill battle anyway. For every viewer who tunes in regularly, there's another TV watcher who is convinced that reality shows are sent from Satan. For every well-crafted show like "Amazing Race," there's a "Who's Your Daddy?" And while "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" may inspire when it shows a poor family rejoicing in their new home, that's not the image reality TV has. Those who don't watch the shows are much more likely to think of them in relation to some poor fool chugging a blended-bug cocktail on "Fear Factor."
With so many people out there actively hating the genre, it would seem that reality-show producers would want to play it safe. Settle into a routine — the show starts in a certain month, runs through a certain month, and then viewers can relax and have time to anticipate a new season down the line.
Take a cue from the professional sports leagues. As any football fan can tell you, the long winter, spring and summer with no gridiron action not only gives fans back their Sundays, it creates a cozy anticipation. But if football was a constant presence, 52 Sundays a year, there's just no way fans would be as dedicated or as involved.
Making a commitment
Reality shows, as do sports, and some television dramas, require a certain level of commitment from viewers. Comedies and soap operas are different — once you know who the characters are on, say, "Friends" or "The Young and the Restless," you can usually tune in months later and still be able to follow the story line.
But on a reality show, if you tune in for the first week, then tune out for months, it's hard to get back in the groove. Suddenly the cast you'd just started to know is cut in half, people who used to get along are at each other's throats, and everyone is referencing challenges and personality clashes that you didn't see.
"Big Brother" is hardly the most critically acclaimed reality show. Like "Top Model," it's a guilty pleasure; and like "Real World," it simply puts people in a house together and hopes for fireworks. But "Big Brother" has done one thing right: Its scheduling. Every single one of the show's five seasons has started in July and ended in September. (It does make the mistake of being on too many nights per week, but that's another article altogether.)
The number-one rated reality show, year after year, is Fox's "American Idol." Say what you will about mouthy Simon, wimpy Paula, or how Clay Aiken totally got robbed, but the show is an enormous hit. And it's really no surprise that the #1 show gets its scheduling right.
"American Idol" begins shortly after the New Year, and runs through May. That's it. So far, FOX hasn't tried to crank extra seasons out of its moneymaker. Yes, the network that chose to air "The Littlest Groom" has shown better taste than its competition in this area.
"Survivor," "The Apprentice," and "Amazing Race" are decent programs, each in their own way. Despite what the reality TV naysayers will have you believe, none of them are actually hastening the Apocalypse.
But if their producers are smart, they'll start showing some restraint when it comes to slamming seasons up against each other back-to-back. Remember a few years back when the hottest show on TV was the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Once the show caught on, it was on seemingly every day, and even the most devoted viewer couldn't maintain interest.
"Survivor" and its ilk had best learn that lesson, or risk having viewers vote them off the island.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor.