I watch a lot of reality television. Call it masochism, or just a bad case of pop culture obsession, but I'm hooked.
My latest obsession, courtesy of PBS, is its mini-reality series, "Broadway or Bust." Perhaps it's because the network describes the program not as reality, but rather a "documentary series," that it has some sense of seriousness. It follows high school musical theater students as they compete in the National High School Musical Theater Awards.
What clinched it for me was the moment the "Broadway or Bust" kids gushed over Michael Feinstein. I beamed with pride knowing that these high schoolers had an awareness of musical tastemakers. By tastemakers, I don't mean the current crop of MTV flashes in the pan. I mean artists with deep roots in the history of music.
Like many from the MTV generation, I became fascinated by cameras following real people in heightened situations with the launch of "The Real World” in 1992.
Then came the copycats, spinoffs and cast members who were hyper-aware of their inevitable notoriety. It went from groundbreaking to trash-talking.
No longer was I witnessing inspirational moments as strangers went about their lives. Gone were the days of Pedro Zamora, opening peoples' eyes to HIV. Once the '90s were over, MTV brought the show to Las Vegas. And that was the end of anything real on "The Real World."
Call me old fashioned, but orgies and stripper poles don't seem like groundbreaking programming.
When "American Idol" first began airing on Fox, there was a weekly segment dedicated to the contestants’ temporary living situation. It was in those brief moments that I found myself feeling like these kids were relatable. Of course, authenticity doesn't breed ratings, so that part of "Idol" went the way of Brian Dunkleman.
Now thirtysomething, had I aged out of the reality TV demographic? No, I had just been ruined by the cultural arts.
By spending a majority of my time attending live theater, I somehow stopped relating to people who couldn't take themselves seriously. It became apparent that reality TV stars were just such people, behaving superficially, or so I thought.
It turns out that my kind of reality TV show is relegated to PBS, a network that has to fight tooth and nail to keep funding coming in from the government.
MTV tried its hand at Broadway when "Legally Blonde: The Musical" was looking to replace its leading lady. "The Search For Elle Woods" tracked a highly manipulated casting process as a bunch of Broadway hopefuls aimed for the spotlight. The problem? It was given the full MTV treatment, meaning it lacked authenticity. NBC’s “Grease: You're the One that I Want!” followed a similar model and only resulted in an average of eight million viewers. While ratings shouldn’t dictate content, "Grease" ended up pandering to the MTV demographic in hopes of keeping ratings up.
PBS seems to be doing it right with "Broadway or Bust." It's a straightforward look at kids working toward their dream. Leave it to the network that brought the world “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow,” and “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.” It's no coincidence that the inspiration for those first years of "The Real World" came from the PBS documentary series "An American Family."