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Are you inclined to marry Joe Millionaire? Are you, perhaps, willing to accept all sorts of abuse from Donald Trump for the chance to work side-by-side with The Donald on national television? Or maybe you're ready to test your relationship by surrounding yourself with a few hot singles of the opposite sex?
Despite the fact that reality shows (search) clearly are starting to wane, television executives are banking on the idea that viewers still have a secret desire to live vicariously through extremely fit, well-coiffed strangers. In fact, after Survivor and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire hit the air a few seasons ago, every broadcast network began airing multiple versions of reality television.
What is it about these shows that seem to mesmerize America? Perhaps it’s that they aren't just a reflection of our interests; these shows may also offer a glimpse of us as a society. It’s possible that our fascination isn’t just our wish to be on television, but that we’d rather watch someone else doing things we don’t like to admit we’re capable of doing. The shows have increasingly revealed to us the darker sides of human nature, highlighting more than just our competitiveness, but also pettiness, betrayal and greed. And it’s fun to watch, too -- as long as it’s happening to someone else.
But is that voyeuristic fascination really popular enough for viewers to tune in seven nights a week? Nielsen ratings indicate that viewers' interest in reality TV seems to already be waning, and it's unclear if this copycat programming will continue to keep viewers coming back in the future.
"Reality TV is more of a novelty. It's exciting when it first airs because you don't know what will happen," said Daniel Feiner of Hart Sharp Entertainment, an independent production company. "But dramas and comedies in the traditional formats can be eternally popular."
That leaves networks in a predicament: up the ante by creating more reality shows or go back to the old model of developing original dramas and comedies? The cost of the latter can be huge while reality shows continue to be cheaper to get on the air.
ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire is a good example of how such bets can turn south quickly. After a phenomenally successful first season, ABC aired this popular and inexpensive program on primetime nearly every weeknight during the following summer. However, the show's ratings tanked almost as spectacularly as they rose.
The flood of reality shows continued nonetheless, but America seemed mostly bored with the offerings. For example, ABC's new reality show, Dating Experiment died in its second week with a poor 1.9/6 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic. Meanwhile, even reruns of the mundane sitcom 8 Simple Rules beat out another network's entire Monday night reality show lineup for the 18-34 demographic.
There seems to be a perception among proponents of reality TV that because of its unscripted nature, it can reproduce or even enrich any dramatic or comedic feature that traditional writers can come up with. It’s a belief in the premise that real-life situations are more interesting than make-believe ones. But the reality of the Nielsen ratings may be implying that the initial shock value of reality shows fade as viewers grow accustomed to the show and its limited iterations. After all, how many different times can we watch a group of women vying to win a marriage proposal from a stranger? And how many households of strangers can we watch trying to co-exist before we grow tired of their similar patterns of behavior?
With traditional dramas and comedies, creative writers have the freedom to develop new scenarios and plot twists for their shows which may not be possible using non-actors in the reality TV format.
"Reruns can be a favorite forever, whereas no one wants to see a rerun episode of Survivor, " added Feiner.
At this point, though, the concern is that as networks continue to feed the reality trend, they're starving the development of original programming that America has historically embraced. That could leave them with little to offer as cable channels continue to ramp up their dramatic offerings.
The broadcast networks certainly have noticed that cable network HBO recently received 109 Emmy nominations for its dramas Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, while broadcast networks ABC and CBS only received a combined 92 nominations.
Despite their flirtation with reality television, Americans are still entertained by quality comedy and drama. But some TV executives believe that reality programming is a cheaper method to provide drama and comedy.
The real drama, then, becomes which type of show will get voted off the island first?
Hilary Kramer serves as a business news contributor at FOX News Channel. She joined the network as a regular guest on Cashin' In in May 2001.