Oh, Get Real!

Enough, already: Zora and Evan, from Fox's Joe Millionaire.Photo: Courtesy of Fox Television

Jeff Zucker is the head of NBC entertainment. Before taking the entertainment job, he ran the Today show—turning Today’s first twenty minutes into the most influential twenty minutes in television. He’s 37 and certainly the leading television executive of his generation. Plus he went to Harvard. He’s survived two bouts with colon cancer. And he has a happy marriage and two young children.

But more and more, what his life is about is reality TV.

This also goes for Susan Lyne, the 52-year-old former journalist promoted last year to run ABC’s entertainment schedule—she’s now basically a reality-TV exec, too.

Now, programming prime-time reality shows, you can argue, is less harmful than manufacturing SUVs (which, in fact, is the main product advertised on prime-time).

And certainly, the money is incredibly good (Zucker, as a longtime top TV exec, has no doubt already banked millions; Lyne, only recently elevated to those ranks, is obviously looking forward to making her dough). And, of course, this is network television. The historical context is that a major part of the job is to feed the beast of popular taste—everybody knew that going in. What’s more, ABC and NBC have to catch up with CBS (whose Survivor was a home run) and Fox (whose Joe Millionaire was a masterpiece of the genre).

Still, the reality thing must be a really unexpected development for Zucker and Lyne, who seem so clearly to have had classier aspirations (they are the yuppies who went to Hollywood).

Zucker’s career in many ways spans the good-taste age of the medium. During his tenure, a network executive could achieve some solid upper-middlebrow cred (Seinfeld, Frasier, and The West Wing, on NBC). Television, during this time, made the crossover from junk culture to pop culture (my 15-year-old daughter writes sitcoms in her spare time, and we’re proud of her). You could go to Harvard and be in television. You weren’t, or didn’t have to be, as you would have been in the earlier TV years, a certain sort of caricature—a mass-taste savant, or a larger-than-life vulgarian, or one of Paddy Chayefsky’s purely cynical suits.

Susan Lyne may even represent a certain sort of most-advanced-development phase of the TV exec: She’s intelligent, polite, nuanced, thoughtful in her demeanor, careful in her responses. She’s an executive who no doubt sees her primary job as one of managing a complex creative process rather than one focused on catering to the nation’s basest desires.

But then—just about the time when Zucker moved from his Today job to this larger entertainment role—the change happened. It was almost as though network television were being maintained on a sophisticated combination of mood-stabilizing drugs, but suddenly, everybody went on some scary street shit (“This reality craze can be like crack for network executives,” Lyne has remarked). First, it was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, then it was Survivor, and then on to The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire and, most recently, Are You Hot?

And shortly, the prime-time schedule will have more reality stuff than anything else, wiping away a good part of the traditional (and expensive) dramas and comedies (I haven’t had the heart to tell my 15-year-old she has no future).

So you have to wonder what Jeff Zucker and Susan Lyne are feeling now—what they say to their spouses when they go home at night.

In some measure, I’ll bet, Zucker and Lyne, being smart and well-educated, blame the fat-and-dumb American audience (and who wouldn’t?). At the same time (because otherwise they would be purely cynical), they’re surely trying to rationalize what the audience sees here, even to appreciate the cultural and social function of the reality genre.

In this, they would not be alone. The audience itself is at any given moment blaming some other hypothetical audience for the junk-food popularity of these shows and at the same time trying to rationalize its own helpless fascination with them.

Reality TV turns out to be not only about the self-consciousness of the participants in these shows but about the self-consciousness of the audience, too. No one is innocent here.

Indeed, the audience is as analytic and abstracted as the network executives. This is kitsch, we think as we watch. Or it’s for the voyeur in us all. Or it’s like watching a train wreck happen—that kind of can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it fascination. Or it’s the humiliation. Or it’s the fifteen-minutes-of-fame thing. Or it’s a sign of a lovelorn culture. Or it’s that unscripted shows (theoretically unscripted, anyway) turn out to be more compelling then scripted shows.

Or in a mean and terrifying age, we need the distraction. Or in an age when the Stupids have come to rule, we are just seeing an apt reflection. (Possibly somewhere there are people who watch reality TV without thinking it’s peculiar or surprising or terrifying or a big joke that they are watching reality TV, but they’re not the sought-after audience for these shows—or, at any rate, that sort of audience is not a $40,000-SUV-buying audience.)

And just as Zucker and Lyne are surely assuming this is a bubble—a programming fad, a novelty thing—the audience is, too, providing another rationalization for watching this stuff: If you don’t do your watching now, soon you won’t be able to.

Zucker and Lyne, in this sense, are not so much managers in the reality-TV business as managers of various passing entertainment phenomena.

In this view, the network and the network executive obviously have to take advantage of this craze or fad (you can’t just sit it out—this is a business, you have shareholders). But a good exec also has to be aware that this is most likely an aberration that, as suddenly as it came, will disappear, leaving the network with a diminished business (among other things, reality TV really screws up the whole network-syndication model—there won’t be a big appetite for reality reruns).

This is a particularly acute issue for Susan Lyne and ABC, home of Are You Hot? and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, among others, because the network (as well as Disney, its parent) was already nearly wrecked when, two seasons ago, it handed over much of its prime-time schedule to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When that craze passed, it left ABC adrift and, among other things, caused Lyne’s predecessor, Stu Bloomberg, to lose his job (and Lyne to get hers).

So while Zucker and Lyne are sitting in meetings all day hearing about new reality concepts, possibly what they’re really thinking about is how to position these shows in their schedules in such a way that they’ll boost the rest of the lineup—hence leaving the core shows in better shape after the reality craze goes. Possibly.

“It’s almost as though network television were being maintained on mood-stabilizing drugs, but suddenly everybody went on some scary street shit.”

Or, abstracting further, what they’re thinking is that reality shows are just a symptom of the many forces that are converging here. It’s not about reality TV, in other words; it’s about change. Change in what the networks are (having moved from a 95 percent share of the audience down to under 40 now, and heading, quite likely, to under 20 percent) and change in what the audience wants (i.e., nonlinearity and nonnarrativeness). And, they’re thinking, managing change is what’s exciting for any executive worth the big bucks.

Still, however you slice it, Zucker and Lyne, along with GE and Disney, are in the reality-TV business. And as it happens, it’s a swell business: dirt-cheap programming—with virtually no talent costs—that commands bigger and bigger audiences.

What’s more, the success model has moved away from the original, depreciating Who Wants to Be a Millionaire strategy. The model now is to keep pushing the bounds of credulousness—to stay out in front of the incredible.

The job doesn’t get easier either. Fox, without the strong middlebrow tradition of the three other networks, with a greater insouciance and postmodern sense of vulgarity, is a better competitor—and, indeed, for the first time has surpassed the other networks in the all-important 18–49 category.

A big part of Zucker and Lyne’s job, in other words, is to counter the Fox touch. As low as you can imagine is as low as you should go. In Lyne’s case, that has meant trying to top the tour-de-forceness of Joe Millionaire with Are You Hot?, with its compelling premise of ripping the humanity from some low-IQ people.

Lyne, I’m confident, is holding her nose as she waits for all this to pass (Zucker, I imagine, is more tough-guy about the whole thing—like Colin Powell having to fight the Iraq war).

But I wonder, actually, if it will pass. There is a school of thought in television that holds that the game show is the medium’s highest form. Its economics are right, and these games speak volumes, apparently, to some fundamental vacancy in the human heart (here’s my idea, by the way: Remake Queen for a Day as a prime-time reality show—applause meter and all). In this view, networks, from the beginning of television time, should have programmed lots of prime-time game shows. They did not, not least of all because the seniormost people in television had highfalutin social ambitions. Being all you could be was not being Monty Hall.

But here we are: Network television’s survival may require network television in its purest form. No more middlebrow, no more pretense (leave that to the specialty channels), no more expensive shows—rather, go as wide and as deep and as low-down as it’s possible to go.

In some sense, though, Zucker and Lyne are lucky to have arrived in their jobs along with the reality takeover. In the polymorphous media world, it is rare to come face-to-face with an unequivocal embarrassment. Something about which any normal person would say, Ewwww, I don’t want to be near that. To come to a line that, if you cross, almost everyone you know (your families too—think of Jeff Zucker’s parents, who sent him to Harvard) will think less of you for crossing.

It’s been years since an aesthetic and moral principle was so clear—one that everyone agrees on (even people who watch reality TV).

Zucker and Lyne could earn the respect not only of their families, but of the nation, if they were to walk away from their reality-TV jobs. Resign. They’d become historical figures in their profession. Statues might some day be erected to them.

Is there a show in this? (Cringe Factor, perhaps?) At what point, after what humiliations, do reasonable and thoughtful men and women just walk off the set?

Related Stories
Survivor Guilt
I’ll admit it: I missed out on this year’s most pressing cultural event. Guess I was distracted by the conventions and that Russian sub. What a story (as we used to say)! (September 11, 2000)Survivor: Manhattan
French châteaux? Asian jungles? Surely NYC has some reality-TV locales—and stars—of its own. (March 17, 2003)

Oh, Get Real!