I've been having fun lately at the expense of NBC, reveling—as much of the TV-conscious Internet has—in the continually lower lows to which their scripted programming is sinking. But shows written by writers are not the only place that broadcast networks are clueless. Although they pioneered the Frankenstein that is reality programming, the Big Four have lost control of the monster. Vulture wrote yesterday, in a round-up of opinions from "unscripted insiders," that network television hasn't produced a new hit reality show since The Voice, in 2011.
I'm more interested in trying to figure out why network scripted programming is so awful. But the fact that its lowest-common-denominator ratings-grab reality programming is not just terrible but unpopular is interesting as well. What's the problem? Let's ask the insiders!
"They rarely take chances,"
"There's a saturation factor going on. If you put a pawn show on cable, a year later, there's 25 of them."
"The genre has gotten mature. It means that less is going to work, just because there's a cynicism that's set in with the audience. You can't shock people with an idea that would have before."
"The division between broadcast and cable is arbitrary and artificial, a way to make excuses to higher-ups who lack vision and creativity."
And my personal favorite:
"This whole business puts you in a scaredy-cat place. It's hard to try to stay fearless."
So essentially, network reality shows are bad for the same reasons everything else they do is so bad: bloat. Shows are too big, too long and too expensive, and all that money makes it impossible to take risks. But as Vulture does point out, the networks do have something up their sleeve that cable would never dare attempt: celebrity diving. It's real, and it's...terrible.
Splash premiered last night on ABC, following hot on the heels of Fox's one-off special Stars In Danger: The High Dive. How bad does it look? Well, sample a promo.
This show is stupid. There's no point in my rubbing it in. But I want to point out a few questions that have to be answered before a show is greenlit.
- Are Americans interested in professional diving?
- Are Americans so interested in professional diving that, when promised "celebrity diving," they won't mind being offered a former Girl Next Door instead?
- Are Americans so amused by the idea of fat men and little people hurting themselves that they will tune in to a show built around that concept?
- Are Americans hungry for more Louie Anderson? Like, tearing at their chest, screaming in agony hungry?
Based on the promo for Splash, ABC thinks the answer to all three of those questions is a resounding "Hell yes!"
What shocks me about shows like this isn't that they're stupid. Obviously, network TV thinks Americans are dumb. (They aren't.) But broadcast television is big money. It's high stakes. There are fortunes riding on it. So why does everything they do seem so lazy? Why does everything they do seem so cheap?