15 Minutes of Less-Than Perfect, or Romantic, Fame

Andy Warhol once said that in the future, everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. Little did he know that his wry prediction would ring true in a mere decade following his death, with the arrival of Reality TV.

Today, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a network executive who isn’t busy shopping around for the next great “reality” premise, or the thousands of wannabes who are willing to put themselves on the line to appear (albeit briefly) on the tube. There are more than 40 reality shows currently wallpapering the major networks and cable, and a slew of websites, such as RealityTVWorld.com, the sole purpose of which is to report the news about each and every reality program. The reality craze has reached such a fever pitch that even celebrities (on the heels of the Osbournes) have jumped on the bandwagon; notably, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey; heiress Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and their “rich girls roughing it” show, The Simple Life; and real-estate magnate Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. However, the majority of reality programs still revolve around the ordinary guy on the street who is hungry to partake of the reality pie. Ah, the intriguing lure of fleeting fame.

Perhaps the root of all “reality” evil can be traced to MTV’s successful Real World series, which tapes the lives of a group of 20-something roommates in various cities. MTV’s hit launched in 1991 and is still running strong, most likely as a result of the voyeuristic nature of the show, which allows viewers intimate knowledge of the lives of the show’s participants. Not surprisingly, “voyeurism” was the necessary ingredient. Networks soon realized that audiences enjoy nothing more than watching unscripted shows that air the real-life dramas and dirty laundry of their participants. These, after all, are “real” people — plain, next-door-neighbor types — not scripted characters. And what’s more interesting than watching ordinary folks make fools of themselves (or, on the rare occasion, triumph) publicly?

Eerily mirroring the Internet’s romance boom in the ’90s, which saw the whopping rise of users flocking to matchmaking and personals websites (Match.com, [email protected], Yahoo Personals, Kiss.com, to name a few), television has now cashed in on the demand-for-romance phenomenon by stepping in as matchmaker extraordinaire. However, television wouldn’t be television if there weren’t plot lines and twists involved. Reality is all good and well, but advertising demands and viewers still require that a show provide drama and entertainment.

Enter ABC, which unveiled its running hit, The Bachelor in 2002. In its kick-off show, we met bachelor Alex Michael who was then introduced to 25 women all vying for his attention. At the end of each episode (which followed the bachelor on his various dates with the contestants), Alex would have to eliminate a number of women (many of whom were left in tears), leaving only two for the grand finale. And the final wrap-up episode would show our bachelor dumping one of the two hopefuls (in this case, Trista Rehn who would later reappear as the star of The Bachelorette), and declaring his love for the favored Amanda Marsh.

Despite the risk of public humiliation on national TV, ABC’s recipe proved so successful that not only was the station flooded with applicants for the next series, but it also inspired Fox and NBC to create copycat versions of their own. Fox unveiled the extremely popular Joe Millionaire (and a follow-up that bombed), which introduced construction-worker Evan Marriott posing as a multimillionaire eligible bachelor looking for love. The catch: the women had no clue that Evan was actually a blue-collar fella boasting a meager salary: a harsh “reality” which would be revealed after Evan had announced his final choice.

Thumbing their noses at Joe Millionaire, NBC retaliated with Average Joe in 2003, which promised an even crueler premise: a beauty queen who had been promised that she would meet desirable, eligible men on the show. Instead, she was introduced to a group of self-professed geeks who had a lot of heart but held hardly any attraction for the bachelorette. To add more salt to the wound, the producers then decided to add a crew of sexy hunks to serve as rivals of the “average Joe’s.” The finale (for the original Average Joe and its second installment) showed both Melena Scantlin and Larissa Meek choosing hunks (Jason, and Gil respectively) and breaking the hearts of their “average” suitors. Surprise, Surprise.

Writing in the New York Times (11 December, 2003), Alessandra Stanley explained the initial Average Joe finale as expected: “It suggested that beneath all the artifice and editing that make up a reality show, there is still a tinge of realism left. Nice guys do finish last.” That’s not necessarily so, but what chance do the “average Joes” really have when a slew of drop-dead handsome men appear as competitors?

The bizarre twists that shows such as the popular Average Joe offer only makes us wonder to why people would put themselves in a situation in which getting your heart broken becomes a national spectacle? Watching episode after episode of these reality shows in which, one by one, the hopefuls are eliminated and sent packing, one walks away with both the happy knowledge that most people are hopeless romantics who are willing to take risks in their quests for love, and also the sadness that most often, during the elimination process, their dreads and insecurities are confirmed in front of a national television audience. Ouch. As RealityTVWorld.com reported (10 November, 2003), the producers of Average Joe changed the overall sarcastic tone of the program after sensing the Joes’ “depth of feeling”. As producer Stuart Krasnow explained: “I think what really surprised me the most was how emotional this was for the guys . . . They took a lot of things to heart. They even cried.” Ouch. Reality bites.

The overwhelming popularity of these programs is also mystifying given the dismal success rate that these reality couples boast. Almost all have called it quits, and so far, only Trista Rehn, the star of the first Bachelorette and her fiancé, Ryan Sutter, have seriously endured an unnecessarily hyped and media-focused courtship which ended in a televised wedding in December 2003. ABC footed the bill for the $4million extravaganza, and advertised the three-part program as the “most anticipated wedding of the decade”. Trista and Ryan were packaged and promoted as America’s answer to Charles and Diana.

The breakdown seems to occur after the cameras stop rolling and post-camera reality sets in. The relationships inevitably fizzle as most realize that a mere 6-8 week courtship under the glare of camera lights doesn’t warrant secure feelings in you or your new mate. In addition, many reality stars seem to have difficulty accepting that this is, after all, nothing more than momentary fame, after which the world will be watching new contestants who have replaced them. Many gracefully fade away into the background, but a few are still clamoring to hold on to their short-lived publicity. Trista Rehn has unashamedly catapulted herself (and her reluctant husband) to semi-celebrity by posing for several magazine covers and even serving as a host for the morning show The View. Evan Marriot of Joe Millionaire fame has a knack for curiously popping up on the E! Channel and the red carpet; Bob Guiney, another Bachelor, is using his fleeting fame to promote his music; and poor Aaron Buerge (another long-lost Bachelor), has been desperately seeking spokesperson gigs to no avail.

As USA Today reported last year (on 3 March and 11 May, 2003, respectively), reality ratings consistently beat the usual crop of sitcoms, and pull in high ratings with the desirable 18-49 demographics, but advertisers are also choosy about the quality of the show. The Bachelor and Average Joe are standard advertising favorites, “but say goodbye to cheesier fare, such as [the now defunct] Married by America“. (The Fox network seems peculiarly adept at producing reality shows with bizarre twists.) And in a recent Chicago Tribune (15 February, 2004), aptly titled “Hold Your Nose, Reality Phenom is Here to Stay”, TV critic Steve Johnson warned us to expect another “reality” tidal wave, and quoted NBC executive Jeff Zucker who claimed that shows such as The Apprentice and Average Joe appeal to “upscale” viewers. Hence, advertisers are scrambling to invest serious dollars in this current phenomenon.

However, forecasters predict that in the next 6-12 months, reality shows could prove an annoying sensory overload, and viewers will renew their interest in the usual standard TV fare. But for the meantime, make yourself a drink, tune in, and watch the current crop of romantic flashes-in-the-pan parade around on primetime, and keep looking at your clock. Their 15 minutes are sure to end.