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October 9, 2015

A history of reality television (part eight): Family, work ... and the future

by Richard Keller, posted Jul 9th 2008 6:00PM

Little People Big World is one of the family-based reality programs now on TV.Family and the workplace -- two constants in everyday American society. They are the places where we spend most of our lives. Sometimes we spend more time at one over complaints of the other. Other times, we barely want to spend time at either location.

Because these are so important to many people across this country, it made sense that television would delve into both of these environments during the Reality Revolution. However, since a 60-minute show about a senior technical analyst sitting in his four square-foot cube was not likely to draw in the audience, the reality shows that were created focused on those families and workplaces that were a tad more unique. Thusly, shows were created around well-to-do families, celebrity families, or families with multiple children, while workplace shows dealt in tattoos, motorcycles, hair styling, and house-flipping.

Coming in later than the game operas and relationship shows, these family and workplace programs ushered in a new phase of the Reality Revolution and set the stage for the future of reality programming.

Family: The family-based reality program goes all the way back to the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family. It was the story of the Louds of Santa Barbara, California -- a nuclear family that looked normal from the outside. Inside, though, there were numerous issues, including the impending separation and divorce of Bill and Pat Loud. Also at issue were the goings-on of 20-year-old Lance, the Loud's gay son who would occasionally dress in women's clothing and take his mother to a drag show.

An American Family would set the precedent for other family reality programs in the future. Rather than showing viewers the daily lives of a normal family, producers would look for the more dysfunctional or uniquely structured families that they could wrap shows around. This gave us offerings like the Celebreality programs The Osbournes, Gene Simmons Family Jewels and Hogan Knows Best, but it also gave us a look at some unusual non-celebrity families as well.

Most of the new generation of family reality programs have come to us courtesy of the Discovery Channel family of networks. The most famous of these has been Little People, Big World. Premiering in 2006, the show focuses on Matt Roloff and his wife, who are both affected by dwarfism, and their four kids -- three of them normal size and one that is also affected by dwarfism. The main premise of the show, originally, was to show the viewers how difficult it is for "Little People" to perform day-to-day tasks in the normal-sized world. Eventually, as the seasons progressed, it became more about the social dynamics of the Roloff family as the kids grew up and their farm business grew.

Two additional family programs joined the Roloffs on TL, both focusing on families with an unusual amount of children. Jon & Kate Plus 8 focuses on the Gosselin family that comprises a set of twin girls and a set of sextuplets (3 boys, 3 girls). Each episode focuses on the steps taken to survive the challenges of raising multiple children. Meanwhile, a series of reality-based specials have focused on the Duggar Family of Arkansas who currently have 18 children (with number 19 due next year). Duggar specials have focused on how they live their daily lives (14 Children and Pregnant Again!), building their dream home (16 Children and Moving In), and a family vacation to Disneyland (On the Road with 16 Children).

Lifestyle makeover programs have also featured a wide variety of real-life families with many and varied issues. On FOX's Trading Spouses and ABC's Wife Swap, the focus was on families whose matriarchs switched families for a two week period. During their time with the other family they would attempt to get them to adapt to the way they did things with their own family. This proved to be difficult in many cases, as the families they dealt with were quite the opposite of each other. For example, a swap would take place between the wife of a farmer and one of a multi-millionaire, or a mother who was very clean and one who was very sloppy.

Families have also been the focus on the programs Nanny 911 and Supernanny. On both shows, one airing on FOX and the other on ABC, a British nanny would visit a troubled family that needed guidance on such matters as child discipline and maintaining control in the household. Out of all of the family-based reality programs, these two shows have shown families that many viewers could connect with as they reflected their own households (to a lesser degree, in many cases). Then there are family-based reality programs that don't actually feature any biological families at all. Two of these are Bravo's The Real Housewives of Orange County and The Real Housewives of New York City. Both shows focus on the relationships of well-to-do mothers and wives on both coasts and their interactions with each other. While not all family, the shows do focus on many family aspects of the individual women on the program.

Work: While one could consider many of the Celebreality programs as workplace reality, the shows in this category focus on the day-to-day operations of normal and unique businesses. With COPS as the trendsetter, workplace programs have been a fairly new sub-sect of the Reality Revolution, with considerable growth over the last few years. The first show to air in the modern era was American Chopper. Premiering in 2003, Chopper focused on Paul Teutul. Sr. and his son, Paul Teutul, Jr., as they started up a business designing customized motorcycles. Eventually, through the series, Orange County Choppers became a huge worldwide success and the father-son team became instant stars.

Since then, the range of work-based shows has increased, with many of them appearing on the Discovery networks, A&E, Bravo, and, believe it or not, History (formerly The History Channel). These programs have covered a wide-spectrum of professions. For instance, Discovery's Deadliest Catch focuses on the crews of fishing boats in the Bering Sea during the Alaskan King Crab season. History's Ice Road Truckers details the dangerous job of driving trucks along Canada's ice roads in order to drop supplies off to towns in the country's Northwest Territories. Ax Men, also on History, looks at the daily lives of those who working in the logging industry.

Other work-based shows have focused on more mundane businesses that contained their own set of unique, and sometimes explosive, characters. TLC's Miami Ink, follows the events that take place at the Love Hate tattoo shop in Miami Beach, Florida. A&E's Airline focused on the day-to-day events at various Southwest Airlines employees. Parking Wars, also on A&E, looked at the daily routines of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The Food Network's Ace of Cakes centers around a specialized cake-making business based in Baltimore.

In some cases, the profession hasn't been unique, but its employees certainly have. In Flipping Out, house-flipper Jeff Lewis is shown as an obsessive-compulsive business owner who will snap at his co-workers if something is missing from his salad. On Blow Out, hair salon owner Jonathan Antin was prone to fits of anger if things didn't go his way. And, as recently as this past May on Work Out, gym owner Jackie Warner was criticized for gossiping negatively, on camera, about a client of one of her trainers that turned out to be a well-known fitness model and cancer survivor.

The future of reality: For now, the future looks bright for reality programming. With the major networks picking up shows for their summer replacements, and more and more cable networks turning to the genre to fill their slots (TV Land, for example), reality doesn't it look like it's going anywhere too soon. You can tell that by just looking at the summer schedule.

Yet, there may be a sign that things are changing. At least this season, more of the networks are turning toward game show based programming than the game operas that have been so prevalent in the past. Shows like ABC's Wipeout and I Survived a Japanese Game Show, CBS's Million Dollar Password, NBC's Celebrity Family Feud and TLC's Your Place or Mine? Add to that talent shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Nashville Star, and America's Got Talent, and you are looking at a schedule much different than a few years before.

Is this the official end for reality programming? While some would be eager to triumphantly say 'Yes!', reality based programs still have plenty of steam in them. Many shows, like Survivor and American Idol still pull in the advertisers and the ratings, and will most likely remain on the schedule for the time being. However, other reality programs that are too expensive to produce may make way for other scripted programs or game shows. Only time, and the fickle habits of the viewing public, will determine how long reality programming graces the airwaves.


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