We've Got Hollywood Covered

Why Reality TV Will Never Produce a Julia Child or Picasso

”Next Great [Whatever]“ shows don’t want great talents — they want ratings. Which strips away any real drama over who wins

International matchmaker. Infotainer extraordinaire. Gossipmonger supreme.

Reality television promises to conjure up all of them, year after year, on-demand and year after year.

The purveyors of these miracles — shows like "The Next Great Food Network Star" — are surely among the strangest in the strange new world of reality programming. They are built to uncover top-of-the-vine, prime time, ready talent. But can they really find this generation's Chanel, Julia Child or Picasso?

Garden-variety talent shows go back to the beginning of broadcast TV (and even further, of course) with their parades of hopefuls and their poor records of delivering more than a moment’s recognition. But then, they rarely promised more than that.

Such programs seemed to function primarily as showcases for wannabes — people without the circumstances or talent required to access the normal avenues to showbiz success. But they at least the illusion of an open door,  in case a truly talented naïf happened to wander in. Occasionally one did.

On the down side, they fed the fantasies of people who stood not the slightest chance succeeding, encouraging them to hang on to their impossible dreams.

In other words, these were essentially freak shows, hard on the egos of the would-be stars, but otherwise essentially harmless forms of cheap programming.

But where the old model promised very little, the new one guarantees that one of the contestants will have a real shot at such precious commodities as weekly air time or runway space at a prestigious event. The old model could discover a contestant with potential who might then go through the long development process of becoming a star. In the new model, however, the show itself serves as both research and development. It raises questions about whether shows can viably discover and prepare potential stars.

The simple answer: Of course not.

The reasons are obvious. "NGFNS," for example, promises a TV cooking show of one’s very own. What package of skills would you have to demonstrate to win this prize?

You would have to cook exceptionally, consistently. And have a strong point of view. And explain yourself. Those are just the on-camera expectations.

But most contestants only bring cooking skills, so they are trying to master media skills as they go along. Think about times where you when you were trying to master a challenging new skill, particularly a multifaceted one such as learning to golf.

How well did you perform these tasks at first? My first time swinging a golf club was a sight to behold, and not a pretty one.

Would it have speeded up my progress if I had the added pressure of being watched while I struggled? How about if Tiger Woods passed judgment on my every move? What if he had also thrown golf balls at me for added drama? Those are the kind of impossible conditions under which the contestants are expected to prove themselves.

What a curious set up: Contestants are placed in circumstances that could hardly be more counterproductive, and then expected to prove themselves worthy.

I must admit that I can see the appeal for the shows. Instead of funding an exacting and expensive development process, they have turned R&D into inexpensive, popular programming.

But putting a previously backstage process in front of the cameras brings with it a whole new issue: the need for ratings. In the competing demands for ratings and R&D, ratings win.

The problem is that R and D is not inherently entertaining. It can be tedious, repetitious, highly technical, detailed oriented, etc. Ratings make distortion of this process inevitable.

But there's distortion and then there’s distortion. A hands-off, fly on the wall approach could produce a watchable show. But merely popular isn’t good enough for these folks. What they want are big, fat ratings, year in-year out. And that usually means cheap tactics.

I mean, really: What do impossible deadlines, nauseating food combinations, and artificially extreme working conditions have to do with real cooking? Oh, I see….

So I guess it really doesn’t matter what the official activity or goal purports to be. If reality TV has proved one thing, it is that humiliation and cutthroat competition can be added to just about human endeavor. And that, my friends, is what big ating programming is all about these days.

While It may be that these shows had honest intentins when first conceived*, it’s reasonable to conclude that they are not effective at achieving their stated goals, because that isn't their real point.

As with the Oscars, where the winners are quickly forgotten after the curtain goes down, the entertainment here is primarily in the contest itself — in the tension created by anticipation that climaxes in the naming of the winner.

As you may have noticed, there is always another contest waiting in the wings, a point which is telling in its own right. Clearly, the viewers being catered to here — unlike the traditional food porn audience — need a big serving of adrenaline along with their mains.

But if the point is not to screen and prepare promising talent for a real career; if the show itself is the only real point and anything that emerges in the way of talent is almost incidental, then the contest has effectively been removed from any attachment to a real outcome. And once that happens, then all bets are off in terms of how that contest is conducted.

This is not to pretend that the old process was perfect. But it at least allowed wormholes for left-field brilliance, for the truly unexpected, for the occasionally challenging, for at least something new to come to prominence. Can we honestly imagine that a Julia Child, a Picasso, a Kurt Cobain, a Coco Chanel, or a Johnny Depp would survive, let alone thrive within this R&D model?

Imagine a few years down the road, when all the judges will be graduates of these programs. The circuit will be complete: shows will become utterly and completely self-referential. Just try and break in then with anything other than the status quo. And is that the cultural world we really want? If we keep blindly supporting these shows, I guess we will get what we deserve both in terms of breaks and entertainment, though my bet is that we aren’t really going to like it.

*To be fair, some viable talent does emerge from these shows and one can hope that everyone else at least gets some decent PR out of the experience.  Though how that pans out for the designated villain would be interesting to know…


Ellen Besen is media critic and former columnist for POV magazine. She is the author of "Animation Unleashed: 100 Principles Every Animator, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker, Video Artist and Game Developer Should Know" (Michael Wiese Books, January 2009). Besen has worked in animation for over 35 years. Her work has been show in film festivals and venues across the globe, including MOMA and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.