May 31, 2001. And then the world changed—well, TV changed, anyway. I remember it clearly. We’re brought into a boat in the South China Sea, as host Jeff Probst provides just the right amount of exposition for us to understand the situation—the rules of the game, the players, and the unprecedented $1 million brass ring they’re all after. The show was Survivor, and 24 seasons later, it’s still thriving.
True, MTV’s The Real World premiered nine years earlier, and even before that, the PBS documentary series An American Family brought TV audiences into a real family’s living room as early as 1973. But it wasn’t until Survivor’s premiere that the reality TV craze really started to kick into gear. Soon after, viewers found themselves immersed in Big Brother, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, and a host of chef and cake shows. Networks were beginning to see the value in reality programming; it was cheap to produce and garnered big ratings—a win-win for everyone (well, except for actors and screenwriters).
It wasn’t long ago when TV network schedules were supersaturated with reality shows. The beast grew so big that subgenres were emerging. There’s “reality” (Keeping up with the Kardashians, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List), “reality competition” (Project Runway, Top Chef), “celeb reality” (The Surreal Life, Celebrity Fit Club), and others. Even sub-genres gave birth to sub-sub-genres (e.g., “reality competition/talent show,” such as American Idol and America’s Got Talent). And in case anyone doubts their staying power, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has even dedicated at least six Emmy categories to reality TV.
For years, since the reality TV bubble began to inflate, scripted series were having a hard time finding longevity on the small screen. It seemed that no sitcom or drama series could last beyond one or two seasons—a far cry from the original Golden Age of television in the 1950s and its re-emergence in the ’80s and in the ’90s as “Must See TV.” And now that’s all beginning to change. Reality shows aren’t fading away, but rather than dedicate nearly ever hour of television to the genre, programmers have begun to figure out how to leverage it in a way that isn’t overkill, and that means weaving these shows into more integrated schedules that include scripted series, as well. (I’m sure some if that was likely a response to viewers who either weren’t jumping onto the reality bandwagon or were getting sore from the long, bumpy ride.) Enter the re-emergence of scripted TV. And it’s not bad TV, either. Shows these days are actually good.
It’s been awhile since people have spoken with such fervor about scripted programming. Now, those same people are more than eager to try to convince others to start watching Game of Thrones (HBO), Breaking Bad (AMC), Parks and Recreation (NBC), or The Big Bang Theory (CBS)—all shows that premiered within the past five years. These are just a small sampling of current programs that have come back season after season to an eager audience. Sure, not all recent shows have found similar success (who actually thought The Playboy Club or Charlie’s Angels would last?), but that’s to be expected. The exciting thing is not that some shows flopped (a reality of television [pun intended]), but that others are now providing new, exciting content that challenges the way we look at television—and it’s those few shows that are successfully building loyal audiences and coming back season after season. (ABC got back on track with a fresh take on the contemporary family unit with multi-Emmy-winning Modern Family. Fox hit a high note with a genre of television that viewers didn’t know they wanted until it was offered to them, with Glee. And who would have thought that unsuspecting cable networks like AMC and FX would step up to the plate with such quality and critically lauded programming as Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy? Even PBS—yes, PBS—has delivered the goods with the much-hyped Downton Abbey.)
A new Golden Age in television has emerged and seems to be sticking around for awhile. It seems that networks have finally begun to gain some insight as to what attracts audiences, and by integrating both reality and scripted programming into their schedules, the variety has never been greater. As has always been the case, the challenge for networks remains the same: how do they attract eyeballs and keep them? But the challenge for viewers has shifted considerably—who’s going to pick up the kids while my shows are on?