The Real Business of Reality TV and What Determines a New Show's Fate

Are you a reality television junkie? Are you a closet Housewives fan? Or do you only watch the news, sports, and legitimate television dramas because you think reality TV is a post-Millennial fascination? Did you know that reality television actually originated on the radio, and that it's one of the longest-running genres in television? Seriously.

Popular radio shows made the transition to television in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with The Original Amateur Hour and This Is Your Life leading the way. But don't think that the cheesy makeover shows and home improvement shows are something new either. In the 1950s, women competed to win appliances on television's Queen for a Day (also first a radio show). The prizes have improved over the years, but the concept is the same.

Basically folks, I'm trying to tell you that Star Search and Survivor didn't invent reality TV. It was invented before most of today's reality television executive producers and network executives were even born! It was born shortly after Arthur Nielsen invented his invisible ratings system... but we'll come back to that.

The interesting question is why didn't reality television take over the airwaves a long time ago, when The Gong Show and Candid Camera were at their peak? Many have given the Internet the credit for making reality shows interactive, but again that's wrong, interactive television is nothing new.

Back in the 1950s (pre-Twitter for you kids reading this), some shows required viewers to write in about what and who they wanted to see on the show, and the networks promoted that and read their viewer mail on the air. Not unlike Andy's clubhouse on BravoTV and reading live-tweets from viewers.

This solicitation of public viewer feedback continued through the years, emerging from index cards to phone call-ins to the Internet in all its various forms. Social media became the biggest free marketing tool out there for a network and its audience. It has let "the people" connect with "the stars." And isn't that what so many television fans who buy celebrity magazines desperately crave?

Lately, I've heard a lot of bitching (occasionally from myself) about how it seems like almost everything on TV is reality-based now. And if you're channel surfing the major networks and check out cable, that's pretty close to the truth. Have you ever wondered why?

Reality television is CHEAP to make. They pay the talent next to nothing, production costs are significantly reduced (especially if you're filming on location in a house or business that you don't have to pay to use). There are no actors. There are minimal union requirements. That's why reality TV never slowed down when the television writers' went on strike -- reality production teams who develop shows aren't considered "writers" and recognized by the Writers Guild of America (a hotly contested matter by some segment producers and story editors who actually turn hundreds of hours of often nonsensical reality footage into popular television shows with storylines we can follow).

I think most people today think of Jersey Shore and Bridezillas and Real World and Survivor and all of the Housewives first when they think about reality television. Four out of five of those shows plucked random people with bizarre demo reels and stuck them all together in a survival situation. Don't play -- I bet there are days on the set of Real World and Housewives that make surviving a month playing games on a tropical island look easy and safe.

Oh wait, we've seen it. Fights, arrests, domestic violence. There's no limit to what the "talent" on these shows will do in front of the cameras in the name of reality television. And that's why there are a lot of people who, at least publicly, stick their noses in the air and don't admit their DVR is catching every single episode of every wife-show in every city.

There is more than one kind of reality television show -- the genre is actually diverse in its own right. Some reality shows are completely unscripted, and some are partially scripted, and there are a few that are totally created from scratch and we know who you are... ahem, Duck Dynasty. But let's face it, finding out that those rednecks were actually just a bunch of rich prep school guys who stopped shaving hasn't hurt that show's popularity in the least. In some cases, it's helped. The Christian Right went nuts when they heard production was asking the family's patriarch to tone down God on the show.

Shows that are contests HAVE TO BE partially scripted in order to work. Duh. Shows like Say Yes to the Dress aren't scripted as much as they're carefully cast. Lots and lots of brides apply to be on that show for Randy's golden advice, but we aren't interested in seeing the really boring ones. We want to see the ones who bring in a gaggle of trailer-trash relatives or a mean jealous sibling. So that's what they give us.

The mostly unscripted Bridezillas was a crazy popular show for a very long time. I will confess that I watched it BEFORE I was a wedding planner, but stopped after opening my company because it was giving me real nightmares. Please note -- those girls never had wedding planners and I believe that accounts for a lot of why they're freaking out. But also, most of them are completely over-the-top nuts and that's how they got selected by the show. A serene, organized, happy bride isn't as much fun to watch. She won't scream at the cameras or her bridesmaids.

Let's face it, most women watching Bridezillas cringed repeatedly at the way the brides behaved, but we watched it, didn't we? And WEtv has capitalized on that fact by launching Marriage Boot Camp to show us how the couples are doing after their famous television debuts. EXCELLENT idea because, let's face it, sooo many of us have wondered how long these couples stayed married after their often grotesque behavior during their wedding festivities.

I got sucked into the first season of Marriage Boot Camp and I wanted to slap Kirsten every time she cried and I fell in love with Rob Maaddi when he couldn't get his wife to understand that, as a sports reporter, sometimes he doesn't get a choice about when he has to work. And so I started blogging about it because I was highly entertained. That's how most bloggers choose what to write about. And the more popular the blogger is, the better their blogging options are. The show grows exponentially in viewership with its presence (or dominance) in the blogosphere.

Here's the thing - networks put a ton of money into creating these shows (even if they're cheaper than making a drama with real actors) and it's very, very important to them that people watch without the network having to spend a lot of money to promote them. That's why when you were watching Below Deck on BravoTV last year, the whole cast was online, live-tweeting with you. BravoTV was the first network to really figure it out. And they've done well. I think they got the idea from the Housewives attacking each other randomly on Twitter and it causing chaos in the media, but whatever works, right? Now all the other networks are catching on. Slowly.

Let's face it -- television viewers love the idea of interacting personally with the stars of television shows -- even reality shows. Dramas are live-tweeting now too -- did you catch the whole social media marketing whirl around The Walking Dead? That was executed flawlessly.

But reality shows NEED the social media and they NEED the blogosphere to acknowledge them in order to get people to watch the shows. Advertising on their own networks, and even cross-promotion on other channels, just isn't enough in a world where half your viewers are watching everything online or the DVR, without commercials. Cable networks don't budget a million bucks to promote a first-season reality show unless they know they've got the downward spiral of a star like Anna Nicole Smith or Danny Bonaduce on film.

In my opinion, the most ridiculous thing of all is that television ratings still all go back to those damned Nielsen boxes. And I've gotta tell you, I've asked every single person I know and nobody has one. And nobody knows anybody else who has one. Who are these Nielsen viewers and where are they hiding? It's quite possibly the stupidest, most-antiquated ratings system in the world, but that doesn't matter. Those are the numbers that networks have to use with advertisers so they drive the money decisions.

Do you really understand what Nielsen ratings are and how they work? Most people don't. So I went to a reliable source: Wikipedia.

"Nielsen television ratings are gathered in one of two ways:

1. Viewer "diaries", in which a target audience self-records its viewing or listening habits. By targeting various demographics, the assembled statistical models provide a rendering of the audiences of any given show, network, and programming hour.

2. A more technologically sophisticated system uses Set Meters, which are small devices connected to televisions in selected homes. These devices gather the viewing habits of the home and transmit the information nightly to Nielsen through a "Home Unit" connected to a phone line. The technology-based home unit system is meant to allow market researchers to study television viewing habits on a minute to minute basis, seeing the exact moment viewers change channels or turn off their TV. In addition to set meters, individual viewer reporting devices, such as people meters, have allowed the company to separate household viewing information into various demographic groups, but so far Nielsen has refused to change its distribution of data of ethnic groups into subgroups, which could give more targeted information to networks and advertisers.

Changing systems of viewing have impacted Nielsen's methods of market research.

In 2005, Nielsen began measuring the usage of digital video recordings such as TiVo. Initial results indicated that time-shifted viewing will have a significant impact on television ratings. A year later, the networks were not yet figuring these new results into their ad rates due to the resistance of advertisers.[1]"

So, here we are in 2014, and nothing has really changed. Nevermind that Comcast, Dish, Verizon, DirectTV and every other major cable or satellite TV provider out there could actually report back as to who is watching what, and for how long -- and never mind that nobody is monitoring or other real-time television watching sites. Let's keep measuring the viewership in 2014 the same way we did back in the 1950s when Nielsen first converted his ratings analysis from radio to television programing when TV was in its infancy.

What aspect of this far more accurate technology for measuring TV ratings has the networks and advertisers so afraid to make the switch? It would certainly be smoother than implementing Obamacare. They're already measuring this stuff, it's just that the real ratings don't account for it.

Too many shows have been the victims of bad Nielsen ratings and it was only very recently that a few cancelled shows were reinstated after their blogospheres and social media fans went nuts to the extent it could not be ignored. ABCFamily's Pretty Little Liars is the best example of a show that wouldn't exist it weren't for their social media strategy and Twitter fans. Literally hundreds of articles have been written about how the show was saved after the Nielsen's tanked it.

What that means is that many of the literally thousands of random new reality shows that are launched every year on more networks than you ever knew existed will survive ONLY if they gain a viewing audience that puts them on the advertising map via the Nielsen ratings. And that makes networks choose shows for advertising potential more than entertainment most of the time. Hey, it's all business, right? It costs money to make television.

I remember one producer warning me after my TLC show Wedding Island finished filming that there was still a chance it might never air. Apparently, networks film entire seasons of shows and then drop them in the trash if they decide they didn't turn out or there's some problem with the talent or production or zero interest from loyal advertisers. MOST tries at creating new reality shows never see an hour of network time. Some disappear after only two or three episodes. I was lucky we had a whole season.

The new reality shows that do succeed -- and I'm not talking about a new "Wives" show in a different city -- make it because of a combination of a good social media marketing strategy AND because they are truly entertaining shows. BUT, if nobody knows about the new shows, and the network doesn't spend money to promote them, and nobody talks about them in television columns, and nobody tweets about them, and God forbid, nobody blogs about them, those shows are dead in the water. This is a fact. Because no network is going to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising on a hope and a prayer.

What's the solution for the average viewer who WANTS to see a show they love stay on the air? Figure out how to get one of those Nielsen boxes... I'm joking. Sort of. But do watch the shows on TV as much as possible, even if it means setting your DVR (yes, Big Brother is watching... and I don't mean the reality show). If you do social media, talk about the shows you like and take the opportunity to interact with the cast if that's something you'd enjoy. Write to the networks -- they all have comment links on their websites and social media pages. Show your support for the shows you love and tag their advertisers in your tweets about them (yes that means you can't always skip the commercials).

For the time being, the Nielsen ratings system is here to stay. But social media outrage from viewers has moved mountains before, and that's going to happen in the not-so-distant future for the entire way ratings and advertising are handled.

There's just no way to dispute that advertisers relying on Nielsen ratings for marketing decisions now are frequently missing their actual targets. What's the point of spending millions of advertising dollars based on numbers that are essentially bogus data? Reality television is here to stay, and has been for 65 years. I'd say the longevity of the Nielsen ratings system has more to worry about unless they get on the technology bandwagon and start producing some legitimate data on actual viewership.