On Monday night, the Writers Guild of America’s worst fear became a reality: over 20 million Americans tuned into ABC’s DANCING WITH THE STARS.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Shouldn’t the writers be a little more concerned with the fact that they’re currently on strike, guaranteeing a Christmas only the Grinch could love?
Well, yes, but the unprecedented success of DANCING should cause the scribes more than a few restless nights. Reality television is the TV writer’s kryptonite, and the continued success of the genre can only mean bad news for the WGA.
After-all, why should networks and studios green-light intelligent and costly scripted endeavors like DAMAGES and MAD MEN — or even less stellar offerings such as CAVEMEN — when they know that audiences will flock in record numbers to watch D-list celebrities compete for a glitterball and a chance to keep fame’s fickle timekeeper poised at 14:59.
It seems television viewers want to have their cake and eat it too by constantly complaining about the quality of programming being offered and yet flocking to reality offerings like DANCING, AMERICAN IDOL and BIG BROTHER.
Apparently, there’s a big difference between what we say we want and what we actually want.
In his book “Billion Dollar Kiss”, veteran television writer Jeffrey Stepakoff put it best when he said, “Reality TV, in many ways is more than just cheap programming. It’s a threat to writers”
Which begs the question. Come January 2008 — when the HOUSEWIVES are homeless and McDreamy will only court Meredith in reruns — will you be putting your money, ummm… eyeballs where your mouth is?
When CBS fills the gaps in their schedule with hour upon hour of BIG BROTHER, will you tune in… or pick up a (heaven forbid) book? When FOX offers up its latest off-key crooners on AMERICAN IDOL, will you be singing along?
What if you knew that by supporting those shows, you were contributing to the death of scripted dramas and comedies?
The fact of the matter is this: The more successful reality television becomes, the less likely television execs are to invest in scripted fair. Period.
And if you’re thinking this will all go away when the striking writers and their network overlords reach an inevitable agreement, ponder this: If viewers continue showing up for whichever reality shows make it onto the airwaves, where is the incentive for the networks to return to the negotiating table?
Seem far fetched? Take a look at the numbers for DANCING and compare those to the ratings for the far costlier NBC offering, BIONIC WOMAN. Money talks, and what it’s saying in this example is, “Why spend more (cash) for less (viewers)?” And even reality skeins which do not perform to the level of DANCING or IDOL can prove profitable thanks to the fact that they generally cost far, far less to produce than does your typical hour-long drama. Do you think Sally Field, Rob Estes and Patricia Wettig are doing BROTHERS & SISTERS for peanuts? Or that ABC isn’t shelling out a pretty penny to DIRTY SEXY MONEY stars Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh and Peter Krause?
In the end, the best way to bring the writers and executives back to the table is to — as the famous anti-drug campaign of the 1980’s demanded — just say no… to reality TV!