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Looking At Reality TV


This week, we have been looking at stories that got lost in the crazed news cycle of 2019. Some of them, of course, were arts stories, and NPR arts correspondent Neda Ulaby is here to tell us about an unexpected and welcome trend on television. Neda, thanks for coming in.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: My pleasure.

KING: What is this welcome trend of which you speak?

ULABY: Well, it's in one of the most popular genres in television, which is reality television. Usually, you think of reality as people backstabbing and screeching and hooking up in hot tubs.

KING: Yes (laughter).

ULABY: But the big trend we saw in 2019 was people in reality television being nice to each other. So, for example, think about "Queer Eye" on Netflix, where the Fab Five makeover people like a military veteran who gets really vulnerable with them about his feelings.


BRANDONN MIXON: You guys mean the world to me.


MIXON: Being able to let you guys in has just transformed me. And I love you guys, man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Love you, too.

MIXON: I would do anything for you guys, you know.





UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're going to do great tonight.

KING: I actually love that show.

ULABY: It's such a sweet show. And then there's "The Great British Baking Show," where the contestants encourage each other. There's "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo" - that's the Japanese organizing expert who could not be a bigger sweetheart to the people she helps out.

KING: These are all Netflix shows that you're talking about, right? So is this something going on at Netflix?

ULABY: Well, this is definitely a Netflix phenomenon, but it's also a trend across the industry that includes very jolly shows like "The Masked Singer" on Fox, and "Songland" and "Making It" on NBC. But niceness is a cornerstone of Netflix reality programming these days. I talked to the head of reality there, Brandon Riegg, and this is what he said.

RIEGG: In the beginning, it wasn't an intentional strategy. When we decided to get into original unscripted programming, it really was a blank slate.

ULABY: So Netflix has more than a hundred reality shows on or in the works right now, and Brandon told me that their guiding principle generally is the catchphrase from Marie Kondo's show, which is spark joy.

KING: More than a hundred shows - I'm going to ask you about one that people are always recommending to me, "The Great British Bake Off," or "The Great British Baking Show" as we call it here. Did this trend start there? People seem to, like, think it's really significant.

ULABY: That was my assumption going into the story when I first reported it, and I was very surprised that the answer from every television executive I talked to was no. It turns out that "The Great British Bake Off" is probably more popular among NPR listeners than among the general audience. The shows that drove this trend more were shows like "The Biggest Loser" and "Extreme Home Makeover."

And you'd think that this is maybe because of some kind of collective hunger for civility, but it's actually also capitalism. Network programming these days is driven more by ad sales than audiences because audiences are spread over so many different platforms, and advertisers tend to be turned off by negativity.

KING: On the subject of negativity, one reality TV star, Simon Cowell, who hosts "The X Factor" and "America's Got Talent," he's been in the news for some negative reasons. NBC is investigating complaints that he was racially insensitive and created a toxic work environment.

ULABY: Yeah, that's right. Simon Cowell epitomizes this kind of old-school, punching-down mentality that also characterizes, for example, a show like "The Apprentice." So I actually asked a whole bunch of people who make reality television how much of this trend towards nice was intentionally compensating for the kind of discourse that comes from the former reality show host who now lives in the White House as well as other politicians.

I asked Tara Long, who runs a number of reality shows, including "Growing Up Hip Hop." Here's what she said.

TARA LONG: A hundred percent. I think we want to create these content and tell these stories to try to course-correct for some of the type of shows that have been done in the past.

ULABY: So among the many absurdities of 2019 was that reality television was trying to be a force for civility.

KING: And in a lot of ways, it seems to have worked. NPR's Neda Ulaby. Thanks, Neda.

ULABY: Thank you so much, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.