Dec 1 2010

Creating the Illusion of Popular Demand

Corporate realities behind ‘reality TV’

Flavor of Love/Public Enemy's Flava Flav--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Jnforte

Flavor of Love/Public Enemy’s Flava Flav–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Jnforte

Former VH1 programmer and Flavor of Love creator Michael Hirschorn has said of reality TV, “If women didn’t want these shows, they wouldn’t get made.” This gender-specific variant on Fox programmer (and Joe Millionaire mastermind) Mike Darnell’s “giving people what they want” mantra ignores a central truth: Marketing plays a mammoth role in generating the illusion of populist demand.

Without 2000’s Survivor, the reality genre may not have become a network mainstay. But behind Survivor’s long-term, landscape-shifting impact was the relentless promotion of the series by Viacom, which had recently merged with CBS and Infinity Broadcasting. Survivor wasn’t only a new format for network TV, it was also a test case for the power of the new TV/radio/billboard conglomerate.

Instead of the standard one publicist per show, Survivor had six PR staffers (Advertising Age, 3/26/01). To generate buzz before the series ever aired, more than a hundred affiliate radio stations ran segments, including dozens of drive-time interviews with producer Mark Burnett (which folks could listen to while driving past Viacom-owned billboards previewing the show). Sixteen of CBS’s TV stations, plus Viacom’s MTV and VH1, covered Survivor’s ins and outs as if everything about the show was news.

When the series started airing,Entertainment Tonight and a slew of other infotainment programs jumped on the bandwagon, interviewing booted contestants (after they had appeared on CBS’s Early Show, of course), a practice that has become de rigueur for broadcast tabloids and respected news outlets alike. When would-be brides get jilted by the Bachelor and fleet-footed celebs are voted off of Dancing With the Stars, you can tune in to ABC’s Good Morning America for their postgame interviews. Similarly, when the Biggest Losers lose their spots in their casts and Apprentices get fired, they show up on NBC’s Today show the next morning. During the height of Joe Millionaire’s ratings extravaganza, a Fox affiliate in New York hired the show’s British butler to do a puff piece on the women known to have dated Mayor Mike Bloomberg—or “Mike Billionaire,” as he was dubbed in the segment.

If you participated in nearly any aspect of pop culture during Survivor’s first summer—even if you simply kept your eyes open while driving past billboards—it would have been very easy to believe that you were the only one who hadn’t seen Survivor, and that you’d be left out if you didn’t tune in. For several months leading up to and through its debut season, your clock radio shock jocks could wake you up joking about the hot babes in bikinis eating bugs on some upcoming TV show. At breakfast, you could watch the CBS Morning News or the Early Show discuss an exotic-sounding series where people trapped on a remote island compete for a million bucks. Then you could drive to school or work listening to a news radio host interviewing the producer of that show.

At lunch, your friends might mention this new phenomenon “everyone’s talking about” and ask you if you’d seen it, or planned to watch. If you turned on the TV when you got home you might catch a segment of Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight playing dramatic clips with lots of mind games, drama and (naturally) bikinis, while an enthusiastic correspondent would describe Survivor as a unique new series everyone’s talking about. When night fell, you could hear about the show yet again on CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II or the Late Show With David Letterman.

Thing is, “everyone” wasn’t talking about Survivor—a cacophony of Viacom/ CBS/Infinity employees were. Their PR blitzkrieg made it appear as though there was overwhelming yet spontaneous popular interest in this series, and made it seem important. It worked: 15.5 million viewers checked out the premiere to see what all the fuss was about. Many viewers found it honestly entertaining, but the audience grew largely because the endless, from-all-corners buzz made viewership seem almost like a cultural imperative. That winning formula drew 51.7 million viewers to the first season’s finale—by far the most watched episode of any of Survivor’s 20 seasons to date (Daily Variety, 8/25/00).

Most of the biggest reality series, such as American Idol, have achieved their spectacular popularity by replicating Survivor’s strategy of multiplatform media attention, public relations and product integration. A tectonic shift occurred once the networks realized they could generate boffo ratings among their preferred demos by running cheaply produced shows with lucrative back-end endorsement deals.

It’s undeniable that millions of fans now adore shows like Idol, Survivor and Amazing Race season after season. But even ignoring the chicken-and-egg question about where that interest came from, most reality shows do not perform to skyrocketing numbers. The truth is, unscripted programming carries so little financial risk that networks now often prefer likely ratings flops like Fox’s creepy, Electra-complex adoption show Who’s Your Daddy, or ABC’s (just as gross as it sounds) Conveyor Belt of Love, over nurturing more-expensive scripted fare, regardless of viewers’ inclinations.

Idol is now network TV’s 800-pound gorilla, but its lesser known precursor, Popstars, came first. The 2001 program revolved around Eden’s Crush, a marketing scheme-turned-WB show-turned- girl group created to test the power of the newly merged AOL Time Warner empire. Girls at home were encouraged to identify with the hundreds of contestants competing to become Spice Girls clones, as they were whittled down to five over several prime-time episodes.

Though the show also pushed Salon Selectives hair care products, the performers themselves were the ultimate product placement. “You can’t buy that kind of advertising,” producer David Foster told the St. Petersburg Times (4/13/01), not acknowledging that the entire series was one long ad. Warner Music Group chairman Roger Ames saw it slightly differently (L.A. Times, 3/11/01), calling the WB tie-in “a huge running start” for future record sales and a “dream come true,” because “even if you could buy all the advertising in the world, there’s the difference between advertising and editorial, and this is editorial.”

Translation: reality TV provides viewers with the appearance of “editorial” integrity, which does not actually exist in the genre. This is one reason why embedded marketers prefer unscripted programming: Its practices are allowed by networks to bypass FCC regulations for advertising, as the Writers Guild of America (11/14/05), Commercial Alert (9/22/08) and FIT Media (11/21/08) have noted.

The value of the media time given to the yet-unformed group was estimated to be at least $20 million. Because of the built-in fan base they imagined would result from so many hours of “editorial” exposure on the WB, Warner’s London/Sire Records inked a recording contract before the band had a name—or even singers. Not until the songs were written, the show placed in the prime-time lineup, and the pre- and postproduction planned were the artists plugged in, like an afterthought. Once selected, Eden’s Crush appeared on WB affiliate news stations in New York and Chicago, guest-starred on the WB’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, were featured on the Warner Brothers-syndicated infotainment show Extra and conducted live chats on AOL. The group’s first single sold 219,000 copies right out of the gate. Whether or not the girls in the group had any talent was irrelevant.

Since the reality show-to-mass market formula hadn’t been perfected yet, Eden’s Crush album sales stagnated once Popstars was off the air and the girls were no longer benefiting from the illusion of popularity bestowed upon them by corporate synergy. The group folded shortly thereafter. To add insult to injury, the members of Eden’s Crush had signed away all their rights as a standard reality TV prerequisite, so they weren’t able to reap any of the profits from their short-lived success. When former Popstar Nicole Scherzinger (, 6/19/06) was asked, “What did you learn from Eden’s Crush?” she replied, “After I worked my balls off for two years and didn’t make a dime?”

From Popstars in 2001 to the Search for the Next Pussycat Doll in 2007, these shows pretended their talent competition prizes were guaranteed windfalls. The truth is that reality TV music and modeling franchises function much like the sex industry. Like most sex workers, the Dolls get a tiny fraction of the cash their bodies generate, while their pimps—the former WB, Interscope, 10×10 Entertainment, the CW network and embedded sponsors like Secret deodorant—control the profits generated by their gyrations. The workers are undervalued and treated as interchangeable.

Though Popstars fizzled (as did the CW’s Pussycat copycat) it provided, along with Survivor, a marketing template Fox built upon to completely dominate TV for the bulk of the ’00s. By the time Fox rolled out the more compelling American Idol in 2002, the infotainment circuit was primed by several seasons of reality hype. Idol gossip, ear-curdling audition outtakes, and mean-spirited judges’ rebukes ran seemingly at every hour, for months—and not only on Fox. Hundreds of kids were humiliated, insta-celebrity was bestowed upon several nominally talented contestants, and millions of home viewers subscribed to AT&T Wireless to vote for their favorite singer.

Fox may earn more than $60 million annually from embedded advertisers, but just as with Popstars, the contestants themselves are product placements for American Idol CDs, videos, concert tickets and merchandise sales. The show does make some young performers famous, but the draconian reality TV contracts ensure that the bulk of the profits go directly to the producers, not the performers.

Eventual Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, an aw-shucks girl with a powerhouse voice, appeared pretty much everywhere. All that cross-promotion guaranteed ratings gold for Fox and an astonishing debut for Clarkson’s single, which broke the Beatles’ record for fastest-ever rise to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. “I was like, ‘How did that happen?’” Clarkson exclaimed, a bit dazed, on an Idol reunion show.

Gee, I wonder.


Jennifer L. Pozner, FAIR’s former Women’s Desk director, is founder and executive director of Women In Media & News, a media analysis, education and advocacy group. For media literacy resources, see RealityBitesBack