The Sopranos. Mad Men. The Wire. Breaking Bad. These are just a few of the acclaimed series which saw the first decade of this century dubbed “the platinum age of television”. With HBO leading the way, a surge of novelistic, groundbreaking dramas and comedies transformed the small screen and gave birth to some of today’s biggest stars.
But while these big-budget bad boys were getting all the critical applause, there was another, far noisier TV revolution happening – the rise of reality TV.
And not only would the low-brow upstart go on to produce a plethora of ratings juggernauts, it would also soon become Donald Trump’s favoured stomping ground in the years before his move to the White House.
'Survivor' changed the game
Prior to the year 2000, reality TV certainly wasn’t a new genre. Unscripted series following real-life people and events had made their way onto our screens before, arguably as early as the 1940s. But there were plenty of elements which made the noughties the perfect breeding ground for a genre which continues to dominate primetime viewing for many Australians today.
Many speculate that it all started with Survivor. Premiering on May 31, 2000, the series – which host Jeff Probst has dubbed “the first truly competitive reality format” – was a runaway hit for US network CBS, going on to not only produce a whopping 37 seasons, but spawning versions around the world – including a current Australian take on the format. At its height, Survivor has rivalled the ratings of the Superbowl in the US.
“Survivor sort of legitimised the genre,” explains Mike Darnell in new SBS documentary series The 2000s. Darnell was one of the first to wholeheartedly embrace reality TV – his role at FOX as President of Alternative Entertainment [NG2] for nearly 19 years saw him pioneer the unscripted TV movement, starting with another mega-hit American Idol before unleashing series including So You Think You Can Dance, The X Factor, Hell’s Kitchen, The Simple Life and more on the world.
Not only were these series drawing serious eyeballs, but they were also far cheaper to produce than their drama counterparts – many of which had budgets similar to feature films.
At a time when an estimated US$14 million was spent to film the two-part pilot episode of 2004’s Lost, unscripted series was easy to cast, cheap to produce (it’s estimated it costs somewhere between US$100,000 and US$500,000 per episode to make a reality series) and it was easy to churn out hours upon hours of content.
“If you have to fill 40 hours of TV with scripted shows it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. You’ll be out of business because those scripted shows will do no better and probably worse than reality shows did,” says Darnell of the gradual – but rapidly growing – shift to unscripted viewing.
That hard maths behind Darnell’s theory quickly translated to content produced on Australian shores, where we weren’t far behind America in churning out our own reality formats.
In the year 2000, Popstars introduced the world to current reality queen Sophie Monk. And then came Big Brother Australia, which debuted on April 23, 2001. The “social experiment” saw 14 strangers filmed 24/7 while unable to leave the camera studded four walls. It was an immediate success with an average audience of 1.4 million viewers turning in to watch multiple episodes throughout the week and saw a change in direction for other networks hoping to cash in with their own takes on the genre.
Watching every day Australians
Soon we were flooded with competition shows such as Australian Idol (2003), Dancing with the Stars (2004) and My Restaurant Rules (2004), dating franchises including The Farmer Wants a Wife (2007) and makeover series like 2009’s Aussie Ladette to Lady.
Viewers just couldn’t get enough of seeing “every day Australians” on their screens, no matter how contrived the situation.
“We live vicariously through the experiences of the reality TV stars from the safety of our own homes,” explains media psychiatrist and reality TV consultant Dr. Carol Lieberman of the shift in viewing preferences. “We don’t actually have to risk our heart or our reputation when we vicariously live through the experiences of the reality show participant.”
Extending the 15 minutes
And certainly, there were plenty of those looking to try their hand at the format. The 2000s saw the explosion of blogs which celebrated the new stars of the small screen. Tabloids began chronicling the adventures of socialites such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian who both swiftly found themselves cast in their own reality TV series. And as social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook launched, so too did the number of willing reality TV participants. While Andy Warhol predicted back in 1968 that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” the 2000s is when those looking for their own 15 minutes exploded.
And it’s a trend that doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Instagram has only heightened those looking to add to their followers via the small screen with red carpets now more dominated by reality TV show cast-offs than by traditional stars.
Still, Darnell says that unless our appetite for the reality genre wanes, things are unlikely to change any time soon.
“I used to get critics asking me, ‘Well, why are people watching that reality show?’” he says.
His response? “Because they’re entertained! You are never going to meet someone who is going to say to you, ‘You know I was watching The Bachelor last night and I loved it but I wish I was watching a great drama’. You don’t need to call it a guilty pleasure – just call it a pleasure. It’s something you love watching. Great TV comes in many forms.”
Watch The 2000s Sunday nights at 8:30pm on SBS and after broadcast at SBS On Demand. Previous episodes are streaming now: