Copycat TV Doesn't Play in Peoria ... or in the Trailer Park

Why Do Reality Shows All Have to Look so Similar?

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Around the office, I'm known more or less as the lowest common denominator.
'America's Got Talent' is simply unwatchable; the idea of giving $1 million to those acts is laughable.
'America's Got Talent' is simply unwatchable; the idea of giving $1 million to those acts is laughable.

When we're writing about a marketing idea in the newsroom and discussing whether it will have broad appeal, at some point all heads at the conference table inevitably swing in my direction. It's certainly not because I'm some marketing genius -- far from it. It's because I have a pretty good nose for what, as they used to say, will play in Peoria.

Here's where I have to digress for a bit of background, if you'll indulge me. Though raised in the New York suburbs, I actually have lived in what some of the more Manhattan-centric among us would call the flyover states. Granted, we're talking Wisconsin and Illinois, but they qualify. Moreover, I actually enjoyed -- immensely -- living in both places.

My bona fides for divining what John Q. Public may actually like go deeper. Chief among the attributes in my everyday-person resume include these three truths: I live in New Jersey; I have really and truly dined at Red Lobster; and I have, in fact, (cue gasp here) lived in a trailer.

Moreover, I grew up a TV addict. From my youngest days I would pore over TV Guide, particularly that fall-preview issue. At times, it seemed as if I was a budding Brandon Tartikoff -- if I liked a show, very often the general public did too, and it would stay around. My hit rate was fairly impressive, if I do say so myself.

All of the above gives me quite a different perspective from many in the media who sit in those lofty ivory towers and try to decide what the Average Joe would like to read, watch or interact with.

And wow, when it comes to network TV, do I think they are off the mark.

Don't get me wrong -- I like reality TV. I was one of the first to sign on for "Survivor," and I watched "The Apprentice" before Ivanka did. I dissect every Simon Cowell eyeball roll and Paula Abdul paroxysm over my cubicle partial-wall with the few closet viewers here in the newsroom, who, I'm sure, would rather remain nameless.

But let's face it: It seems that when one network finds a good idea, everyone copies the hell out of it until the life is beaten out of the concept. Reality doesn't have to mean unoriginal: The steady diet of reality would be a lot more palatable if every program didn't look and sound the same as the next. Do we really need two karaoke programs in prime time (and what's with those Honey Bees anyway? It's like channeling the June Taylor dancers.). "America's Got Talent" is simply unwatchable; the idea of giving $1 million to those acts is laughable. The big prize went to a ventriloquist.

And don't get me started on "American Inventor," which should be called "American Sob Story." Or "The Lot," which -- the few times I managed to stomach it -- was painfully long and slavish to the "AI" format. Shame on you, Steven Spielberg!

There are some bright lights. I confess to a certain glee watching Gordon Ramsay curse out contestants on "Hell's Kitchen," though we can do without the overwrought drama in which the two finalists each open a door to a fictional restaurant. And "Last Comic Standing" can be very funny, though again, can we please lose the silly standup venues like Medieval Times? (Talk about product placement gone awry.)

But for every "The Bachelor," which really does strain the limits for what even I can bear -- the networks have to push it even further, as in "Age of Love." Pitting 40-somethings against 20-somethings to grovel for the attention of one man -- who doesn't strike me as much of a prize to begin with -- isn't what I'd call must-see TV, NBC.

At least, that's the view from the trailer park.
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