The Reality of Reality

06/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reality programming isn't new. Before American Idol there was Star Search before that was The Original Amateur Hour, which was a half hour, not an hour and wasn't the original, that was Major Bowes Amateur Hour. However, The Original Amateur Hour was the first on television and like its modern incarnation, American Idol, often went to different cities to find talent and even went to Europe. So the first reality show actually began on radio in 1934, then moved to television in 1948. Frank Sinatra was the biggest star to first be exposed on the show. As the show got older, so did its audience. Geritol, the Viagra of its day without any of the noticeable benefits, was its sponsor until the end of its run in 1970. Like its grandchild "American Idol", the audience voted, then via telephone and postcard, an early example of media interactivity with its audience.

Queen For a Day is considered to be the forerunner of the modern reality show. It began on radio in 1945, migrated to television in 1956, completing its run in 1964. The format combined a pull yourself up by your own bootstraps sensibility with the public humiliation of most of today's reality shows. Again, the audience voted, however, this time they weren't voting for the most talented. Each contestant, either a housewife or widow, told a story notable for how awful her life circumstances had become. If she cried, that was a big plus and often helped gain votes when the audience applauded, voting one of the four contestants Queen for a Day. She would then be draped in a velvet cape, crowned, given a bouquet of roses and gifts that would not improve her life at all. The audience cheered, she cried. Everyone was happy they were able to help her achieve fame and fortune, or television's idea of it.

And of course, Candid Camera, the granddaddy of all prank/hoax shows like Punk'd and Boiling Point where ordinary people are put into situations they don't realize are fake and we are entertained by how they react.

When those historic examples were popular, there were only three television networks, which meant the audience was divided, unevenly, by three on a national level. The audiences were big enough to justify spending money on the production of comedy and dramatic shows that not only attracted audiences, but in some cases gave the networks prestige and star attractions that bolstered their other offerings. Reality shows were very popular, had long runs on television, but did not dominate the television schedules in their day. Something happened.

In the past twenty-five years, the expansion of cable and satellite systems has transformed television, changing the broadcast networks' incentives to invest in programming. It's the economics, says Richard E. Caves, professor emeritus at Harvard and author of Switching Channels. The economics has shifted programming to inexpensive unscripted game, reality shows and news magazine formats.

Another factor, there are so many channels and so many hours to fill. The old model of aggregating eyeballs and selling them to sponsors hasn't changed. What has changed is the continuing viewer shift to cable and satellite, plus more people are turning to the internet instead of broadcast television. The audience is so fragmented, putting together enough eyeballs to justify decent budgets is a big challenge. What is most real about reality shows is that they cost about one third the amount of scripted programming.

The problem is coming up with an idea that is promotable enough to attract viewers. Every conceivable combination of dating, dwarf dating, partner swapping, temptation, millionaire matchmaking, has been done. Enough forms of alleged talent, from singing to surviving, becoming the next top supermodel to dancing, designing and inventing have been put on display to make it seem like anyone has a shot at fame and almost everyone takes it. Makeovers of every kind, from home to wardrobe to losing weight to surgery, all with the goal of reaching some attainable version of unobtainable self esteem. You get the idea. It's all been done and done and done.

What's next? Whatever sells. What sells? Hype. What is the most hyped product/activity of late? Twitter. Its very nature combines an easily obtainable product with a large and growing audience much more viral than the swine flu. What would be a potentially potent marketing and commercial combination? A reality show based on Twitter. Such a show was reported by Associated Press on May 25th: "The producers call their proposed series the first to bring the immediacy of Twitter to the TV screen. The project is expected to "unlock Twitter's potential on TV". I have no idea what any of that means but the brand recognition Twitter has gained so rapidly carries a lot of potential sponsorship weight - at least for now. Since Twitter has allegedly revolutionized how celebrities relate to their fans, my guess is there will be some iteration of fans pursuing celebrities via Twitter and those at home will watch as they close in. Then what happens? I don't have a clue but apparently no one else does either, there has been no idea forwarded and no date set.

Nielsen Media Research reported that more than 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users don't use it the following month. That means that in a given month, the retention rate is less than 40 percent. If that lack of retention continues, the massive audience they are hoping to attract won't be there, despite the rocketing growth they are going through now. Facebook and MySpace grew rapidly but have retention rates close to 70 percent.

Twitter can certainly create the hype, but whether the talented producers behind it can actually deliver a program anyone will want to watch remains to be seen, but maybe there's an opportunity for the "Facebook Show".