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Reality TV/Reality Watchers

By RD Heldenfels Published: September 14, 2005

''Who won the first 'Amazing Race'?'' my wife asked the other day.

It was not a casual question. We had gotten a DVD of the first season of the reality series for review (it arrives in stores on Sept. 27), and she was watching it.

I resisted telling her. She was enjoying the season, which she had not seen before, and knowing the outcome might spoil the experience. But she insisted she wanted to know, so I looked it up and told her.

She watched all the rest of ''Amazing Race'' DVD.' And quite happily.

I mention this in part because it's sometimes said that shows that reach a clear resolution at the end of a season -- such as reality competitions -- don't fare well in rerun. I'm more incline to believe that it depends on how good the show is. If you know how a case turns out on, say, ''Law & Order,'' you can still watch the reruns (and re-reruns and re-re-reruns) to see how the pieces fit together, or to see who's getting to ham it up as a defense attorney, or just because you like the show. So why not do the same with ''Amazing Race'' or ''Survivor'' or another show -- where the characters and the plot twists give you plenty to enjoy even when you know where it's all leading.

I also mention it because of all the complaints I hear and read about reality shows. The latest appear in a poll by the Associated Press and TV Guide, the details of which you can find here. The headline for stories from the poll tended to focus on the dissatisfaction with reality TV, with some 80 percent of respondents saying there's too much of it.

That really isn't a surprising figure, but it is misleading.

Why no surprise? First of all, because even the most successful shows don't have 80 percent of the audience watching week in and week out. According to Nielsen data, a top-rated series last season was seen every week in less than 20 percent of all TV households, and by fewer than 10 percent of all available viewers.

Second, ''reality TV'' as a genre gets bashed in the way comedy or drama does not. (TV news, on the other hand, does get trashed as a genre much the way reality TV does.) When you say ''reality TV,'' people are most likely to think of the worst of the form -- the ''Fear Factors'' of the world -- instead of the best, and so folks will immediately respond negatively.

I've found the reactions change, though, when you remind folks of good reality shows, or of things that could be classified as reality but aren't always thought of that way, such as ''Antiques Roadshow.''

And I suspect the people responding to the poll were reacting to summer programming (when there was a lot of reality filling air time) or to the fall-season glut of a couple of years ago. The fact is, we are past the point of thinking that any reality show is going to succeed. The failures of some high-profile projects made that clear. The success of ''Lost'' and ''Desperate Housewives'' reminded programmers that people will still flock to scripted programs, and I suspect we're one hit away from a resurgence in sitcoms.

But I'd rather watch a good reality show than a bad drama or comedy.

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