A couple of things moved my brain today. The first occurred while I was in the middle of my 3-mile power walk – hey, I’ve lost 14 pounds so far. Anyway, while walking past our local neighborhood park I noticed something different. Next to the tennis courts are two bocce ball courts. In the seven plus years that I’ve lived here I’ve never seen anyone playing bocce ball and for that matter, I’ve only seen bocce ball being played in person once before in Grapevine, Texas by some great grandfatherly Italians. Today I witnessed not only a few, but a whole club playing competitive bocce. A couple of the players came over and told me they meet every Friday morning. I was stunned. I had always wondered why they had bocce ball courts at this park. In my opinion it was similar to having a shuffle ball court or croquet field…who knew there were bocce ball aficionados around here. Maybe I should take up bocce – is it the next big craze.
Well, I doubt that Mark Burnett is developing a TV show around bocce ball, but the other thing swirling around my head is reality television. I was listening to an interview on Marketplace the other day where they were discussing advertising in this new fragmented audience era. The expert compared the number of people watching network TV in 1971 with today and it is staggering that a hit show on an average night back then was more than all the combined TV broadcast networks today…on a very good night. With the internet giving us so much freedom to watch whatever we want at anytime it’s no wonder that broadcasting and the advertising that supports it are in deep trouble.
That’s why network executives are going to reality TV more and more, and especially live competitive shows where people want to watch as it’s happening so they don’t accidentally find out results before they watch the show while viewing the web or be able to join the social media conversation, posting comments on social media during the live show – hence the new instant digital water cooler. This means they are also more likely to view the commercials that run during the live telecast.
Myself, I’m not that big a fan of reality TV, but tend to choose competitive shows over any of the other genres. I just don’t understand why anyone would care to watch the antics of housewives, teen moms, bearded duck hunters or especially superficial 20-somethings from New Jersey (I’m from Jersey myself so I know). My favorite reality show is The Amazing Race, not only because I have a love for travel, geography and seeing people sleep in airports, but because I would really love to run the race myself. (I applied many years ago to go on with my mother-in-law) I think the show is popular because it’s one of the only reality shows where almost anyone can feel like they could be a contestant – not just a show for chefs, fashion designers, models, overweight folks or those who look good in a bathing suit while back stabbing and not bathing for weeks. Almost anyone likes to be a tourist and see the world or at least Disneyland. Dancing with The Stars also is popular for the same reason because a lot of people THINK they can ballroom dance or would like to learn or have fantasies of being Fred Astaire, only if they would get their ass off the couch.
The most prevalent reality show genre is the singing or talent competition and has been popular all the way back to when radio was king, with Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and then later on TV with the Ed McMahon hosted Star Search and others. But it took some Brits to modernize the genre and turn it into a ratings blockbuster – I speak of American Idol. Now, I must admit that I’ve been watching portions of the show since it premiered as, what was once called, summer replacement programming. It did fairly well that first season, but wasn’t a super smash hit like the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire that also premiered as a summer show. It really took the rapid success of first season winner, Kelly Clarkson to make Idol a hit and then the success of Carrie Underwood several years later to add a boost to keeping it a ratings juggernaut. I hope Simon Fuller, Ken Warwick and Nigel Lithgow, as well as Fox Television, are very nice to Ms. Clarkson, Ms. Underwood, as well as Oscar winning Jennifer Hudson for making the show so successful. Audiences like success stories and watching young talent develop before their eyes. I think that’s one reason season X winner Taylor Hicks never really hit it big because he was already who he wanted to be while on the show and never changed. There was nothing to blossom.
The Voice, another popular singing competition show, has yet to produce a legitimate mega star and so once the gimmick runs its course will probably fizzle out here in the next few seasons unless that changes. Survivor has had its share of stars develop from the show including host Jeff Probst who has his own talk show and Elizabeth Hasselbeck who was a contestant and now a long-time host of The View on daytime TV. Another reason why I like the Amazing Race is that though they’ve had memorable teams, including some couples from other reality shows, there are no big names coming from the show. Even host Phil Keoghan is so unassuming and down to Earth that I doubt he’ll ever be on TMZ punching out a photog or being the subject of a true Hollywood story.
Back to Idol – this season has really pointed out the decline of the show and without any more big stars born from it these last few years I don’t see it lasting too much longer. This year’s new judges just don’t have the chemistry of the originals and there has yet to be a real replacement for Simon Cowell, who left to start his own show The X Factor that hasn’t been the big thing he promised and ranks below the The Voice in ratings. Without the show producing a mega star it won’t last too long, either. The top 10 contestants on Idol this season are fairly bland and though decent singers don’t seem to have whatever it is that makes people follow them religiously and buy their music on iTunes. The same could be said from last year’s crop, as well. For even though the show needs a Clarkson and Underwood to keep the momentum going, the second tier stars help as well. The Clay Aikens, the Daughtrys, the Kelli Picklers, the Fantasias and others are popular entertainers with successful careers who also came out of the Idol machine and are somewhat household names.
I’ll watch American Idol the rest of the season. I’ll pick out a few contestants to root for and hope will become successful, even if they don’t win. But it’s becoming harder each season without some pieces of coal that we can watch turn into diamonds. We need a Clay Aiken transformation or the wonder of seeing Carrie Underwood’s almost certain anointment to Queen of Country even as a no-nothing girl from small town Oklahoma. Maybe it’ll happen, there’s still time but if it doesn’t I look for another reality competition show to WOW me and grab my viewership. Perhaps it’s American Bocce. Hmmm…I need to call Mr. Burnett about this.