back to the Black Table

It started innocently enough. Take seven strangers, put them in a loft in New York City, throw in a few cameras and see what happens. Thirteen years later, this cutting edge programming has become mainstream and has single-handedly dulled down the airways.

And on January 15, 2004, you'll have a new place to get a reality fix any time you feel a sudden urge to watch people eat bulls testicles. That's the day a 24-hour channel called Reality Central launches.

This new station will be funded by 25 prize winners and contestants from past reality shows, namely Survivor's Richard Hatch and The Bachelorette's Trista Rhen, and was co-founded by Blake Mycoskie from CBS' The Amazing Race. In addition to "behind the scenes" commentary and international programming, the up-and-coming net will feature reruns of old reality shows, so you can relive the heavily-edited past. (Reality Central's only original reality show? A feature on the development of the station itself.)

Larry Namer, president and CEO of the network, says he'll start off with 3 million viewers with a goal of hitting a Nielsen household rating of 0.3 by 2008, which means they want 0.3% of the TV watching public to watch it, or about 20 million viewers. (That would make it smaller than ABC Family is right now.) While this number is much lower than what a network like NBC or even FOX needs to survive, Robert Thompson, professor of television and film at Syracuse University, thinks that's all Reality Central needs.

Though Thompson concedes that the numbers for reruns of reality shows will be lower than say, reruns of Seinfeld or Friends, he believes "a network like Reality Central doesn't need those numbers. The bar is lower for a station like this."

Oh, and how low that bar is. Nothing's below a producer's standards these days. There's the uber-popular gross out fest, Fear Factor, where contestants once bobbed for eyeballs in a vat of blood. FOX's snoozefest Mr. Personality was hosted by infamous White House Intern Monica Lewisnsky. And then there's Extreme Makeover, where once- ugly viewers are transformed into beautiful people -- right there on the big screen -- with a little help from a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon.

What ever happened to watching a bunch of twenty-somethings bitch about each other and argue over dirty dishes? Lately, reality television has moved from being simple voyeurism a la The Real World to the lowest common denominator, which is apparently always aged 18-to-34.

And yet we can't seem to get enough -- or can we?

Though American Idol proved a national phenomenon, reality TV has begun to slowly fall out of favor with viewers who cannot choke down another second of baseless entertainment. Case in point: ABC's latest flop Are you Hot? was axed due to lack of interest. Maybe it had something to do with Lorenzo Llamas highlighting contestants' cellulite with a laser pointer. In fact, ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun told reporters that "ultimately, having a reality-laden network is not great business."

ABC has since reshuffled their line up to focus more on drama and comedy, thus saving millions of viewers from being exposed to John Salley "coaching" teenage girls in All American Girl 2. (His hairdresser would probably agree that this is a smart move).

One thing that all the networks, including ABC, could always count on was that people would tune into see who won -- no matter how many viewers the show had previously gotten. In fact, Joe Millionaire's finale was second behind the Super Bowl in number of viewers in 2003. But once the surprise is ruined and the "winners" have been revealed, why pass up the Sopranos for a rerun of Fear Factor? After all, no one watched Survivor because Richard Hatch looked hot naked -- we watched to see if he would win a million bucks. We already know that in the end, Evan "Joe Millionaire" Marriott will choose Zora, and that Aaron "The Bachelor" Burge will choose Helene.

In Thompson's view, we may tune back in, if only because those schmucks gagging on cow's eyes are little more like us than say, Tony Soprano. "With reality shows you peer in on real people -- not actors -- but people a little closer to who we think we are," he said. "There's a Peeping Tom element, especially with these dating shows, where we see intimacies we can't watch in everyday life."

Reality Central plans to exploit the Peeping Tom element -- their intent is to add interactive programming after the network gets off the ground. (Now I can find out if I'd fit right in with that Firestone family, as I originally suspected.)

For those who want to go back to the good ol' days of laugh tracks and rehearsed scripts, there's some good news and some bad news. The good? The truly horrible shows seem to be dying a horrible, nasty death. The bad? Our children will be watching Survivor 25 -- two dozen reality shows have been planned for summer, in what used to be the off season for TV.

"There's no clock ticking on reality TV," said Thompson. "There probably won't be as many next summer as there is right now and we probably won't be talking about it as much, but it will be here."

And if the new execs at Reality Central get their way, we'll be watching it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of time.