NEW YORK – "Reality" has shifted from exotic desert islands, rat-infested coffins and rose-laden California mansions to boardrooms and restaurants and campaign trails. Oh my.
As the reality TV genre evolves, the latest wave of shows has an all-business feel. From the smash hit “The Apprentice” to the upcoming "American Candidate," reality programming is tackling complex issues of business and politics.
Or is it?
While TV producers seem to be going after more serious fare, some say it’s just the old, familiar wolves dressed up in sheep’s clothing.
“They might have more sophisticated contestants externally — they clean up well — but the shows aren’t really more sophisticated,” said reality show buff Liz Haas, 34, of Falls Church, Va. “It ends up being the same petty backstabbing stuff that goes on all these shows.”
On “The Apprentice” contestants compete for a high-powered, high-paying job with Donald Trump (search); on “The Restaurant” participants had a hand in making a trendy New York eatery thrive; on the upcoming “American Candidate" people will get a chance to simulate actually running for president; and on ESPN's "Dream Job" sportscaster wannabes see what it's like to be on camera in the wild world of sports journalism.
Television experts say reality shows' trend towards serious areas of American life — boardrooms, TV studios and campaign trails — are a natural path to wider audiences.
“They’re reality shows for people who aren’t big fans of reality shows,” said Jason Mittell, film and media culture professor at Middlebury College (search) in Vermont.
Many viewers are intrigued by the newest kids on the block because they can more closely identify with what they see on screen. Instead of watching people eat bugs and have hot tub parties, viewers see contestants negotiate with clients or sweat under their boss' displeased gaze.
“It’s fun to see how other people react in situations you can relate to,” said Stephanie Eiseman, 34, an architecture project coordinator in New York who has held both corporate and waitressing jobs. “That’s the appeal.”
On “The Restaurant” — a Mark Burnett concoction that premiered on NBC and has a second season on tap on Bravo — chef Rocco DiSpirito (search) struggled through the pitfalls of opening a new restaurant. Persnickety diners, belligerent wait staff and the daily heat he took in and out of the kitchen were all real-life obstacles with which any restaurant owner is familiar.
“The Apprentice,” also a Burnett creation, has a mix of Ivy League MBAs and street-smart entrepreneurs competing to land a $250,000 job with Trump.
And on the upcoming “American Candidate,” scheduled to air this summer on Showtime, contestants — all of whom must fill the legal requirements to run for president of the United States — will participate in a mock campaign. At the end of the show, the winning "Candidate” may even run for office.
But even these versions of "reality" aren't exactly everyday experiences. Having The Donald himself assign a team of employees a task knowing that at least one of them will be fired isn't business as usual in the real world.
“It’s more of the same, just packaged differently to appeal to people with slightly different interests,” said Haas, a stay-at-home mom.
While producers seem to be going behind closed doors to get the scoop on the working world, personality conflicts and emotional breakdowns are still at the heart of the shows, rather than contracts and negotiation.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” said David Garfinkle, executive producer of “Blind Date” and “Fifth Wheel," who added that nabbing viewers and making money is the bottom line.
“At the end of the day, it’s really not about the show. It’s about the business. It’s show business.”
Garfinkle thinks the expansion into career-focused reality programming is typical of an evolving genre.
“In all TV there are certain points where dramas are hot and certain points where comedies are hot. It’s the same natural progression with reality,” he said. “People are coming up with ideas outside those tried and true things that have worked in the past. The audience is responding.”
But not all viewers are enchanted by the latest batch of offerings. Haas said she finds the romantic quests of shows like "The Bachelorette" more interesting, while Eiseman prefers the escape factor of “Survivor.”
“You deal with people like you see on ‘The Apprentice’ every day,” Eiseman said. “I want a break. Why would I want to remind myself of what I’m going to the next morning?”