The first and arguably best "reality" TV show was called "Survivor." Now, the reality shows that have overloaded the prime-time airwaves for the last few years may soon be struggling to survive. Although their ratings remain high, our latest national poll suggests that reality TV may soon be -- in the words coined by the "Survivor" show -- "kicked off the island" of American TV.
So if you can't remember which bachelor or bachelorette is this week's national rage; if you're tired of watching marooned celebrities dine on raw bugs and lizards; if you can't stomach the thought of another half-hour of Anna Nicole Smith, take hope. Our survey of 1,000 adults, conducted Feb. 28-March 4, found that 67 percent of Americans are "becoming tired of so-called reality programs."
Personally, I confess to having been seduced by the initial run of "The Osbournes." And I followed the first "Survivor" series. In spite of that -- or maybe because of it -- I'm finding myself among the many TV viewers now scratching their heads. We're wondering just how riveting it is to peer into the mundane daily habits of forgotten celebrities, to root for gold diggers as they compete for the hearts and false fortunes of believed millionaires, or to obsess over which Americans have the sleekest physiques.
Just when you thought it was safe to click on your TV set, a new lineup of reality programming is on its way. One show that's still in the planning stages has already earned a tongue-lashing on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller gave an impassioned speech to his colleagues deploring a proposed show that would move a family of real "hillbillies" out to Beverly -- Hills, that is, in California. You know, swimming pools, movie stars. Miller, proud of his own mountain heritage, correctly pointed out the denigrating and pitiful quality of such drivel.
It often takes time before the public translates its opinions into action. That helps explain why our poll -- with a margin of error of only 3 percent -- is a bit ahead of the TV ratings. Don't be surprised if the ultimate fate of the show about real-life hillbillies dictates the future of this whole line of programming. The widespread controversy that might attend the lampooning of an unlettered Appalachian family might temporarily resuscitate the reality TV idea. Or, if it forces reality TV into becoming politically incorrect, it could prove the end of a brief but celebrated era of programming.