Let's be clear: reality TV is never going to die, as much as some of us might want to dance on that grave. Now, when I say reality TV, I'm not talking about game shows. I'm talking about Keeping Up With The Real Housewives of Amish Pawn Idols. These shows are the greatest-accepted fiction in our society. Nobody has any illusions they're real, but we swallow the "reality" title and ask for second helpings. If reality TV can't keep up this charade, it will have to evolve. Let's just hope it's for the better.
That all-powerful weapon of discontent has been brandished against the reality TV institution: litigation. Storage Wars and Whale Wars have both been sued by show participants for rigging. American Idol has been sued for failing to meet minimum wage requirements for its writers. Didn't know reality shows have writers? Well, according to the deal struck up after the last writers' strike, there are no writers on reality shows. That's why the "production assistants" who write these shows don't get union pay or union benefits.
The reality TV suicide epidemic is even more troubling. While some of the participants on these shows are actors, others are people who just want to be on a reality TV show. It should come as no surprise that many of the individuals reality attracts are mentally unstable, and that the insane pressure the shows put them under exacerbates their situation. While one would think that this might stem the tide of volunteers, that's clearly not the case. It does, however put a damper on shows: suicides and cancellations seem to go hand in hand.
Is the reality TV model unsustainable? Well, no. Reality rakes in cash, more than enough to weather the storm of a few lawsuits and suicides. The solution for networks to indemnify themselves is quite simple, and feels inevitable: hire mentally balanced participants (some shows already pre-screen participants for mental health and provide them with counseling after), and change the name of the genre. One producer has suggested "situational TV." And American Idol could pay its employees the minimum wage and still make hundreds of millions of profit. These are all very doable changes, and don't really change the genre much at all.
The only thing that will fundamentally alter reality TV is a shift in the tastes of the American public. The latest Nielsen ratings show that reality TV is still charging ahead, especially on cable, where low-budget, niche shows thrive. And I see no reason why our viewing desires will suddenly change. Hell, pro wrestling, the most ludicrous reality show of them all, is doing just fine.
Shit. If you need me, I'll be filling out my application for The Real World.