Are Americans tiring of reality TV

Posted: Mar 11, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

There is a time and a place on TV for documentaries, real-life stories and fun competition. But it isn't every night on every channel, especially as we head into a time when we'll be exposed to a surfeit of "real reality" TV -- war coverage from Iraq. Some news channels already have confused and even bored audiences with a merry-go-round of reports on the what-ifs of war. But when real bombs start killing real people, the boredom will give way to daily anxiety and a demand to know what's going on.

One must wonder what the creative community -- those charged with producing new ideas, riveting drama and innovative comedy -- are doing. Why have they cast off the wit and warmth of the Jerry Seinfelds in favor of muttering Ozzy Osbournes and dim-witted Joe Millionaires? Let's hope the current generation of Americans, scornful of books and addicted to the TV remote, won't be left without creative and well-produced programming.

And after the war? Maybe -- we can always hope -- TV will return to a variety of some reality and some fantasy, including tasteful comedies and spirited dramas to go alongside the voyeuristic shows we have dubbed "reality."

In the end, the public's good horse sense usually prevails. Based on the results of this survey, that happy end may be nearer than the networks think.