NYLON/Victoria Warnken, Bravo


Scandoval & The New Golden Age Of Reality TV

With skyrocketing viewership and real-life drama unfolding in real time, are we in a new golden era of reality television?

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“Apparently, we broke the internet!” Love Is Blind host Vanessa Minnillo posted, I’d assume frantically, to her Instagram from the set of the Season 4 reunion an hour after it was supposed to begin airing live. She assured her following and the millions of viewers attempting to log on to Netflix’s crashing platform that no questions would be asked until it was fixed. The glitch was caused by the sheer volume of fans trying to stream the wildly popular dating show live — 6.5 million to be exact.

To put this number into perspective, the Succession Season 4 premiere brought 2.3 million viewers. Yellowjackets debuted to 2 million, marking the most streams of any Showtime season premiere. This is not to say that scripted shows can’t reach these levels of views — HBO Max’s The Last of Us Season 1 finale raked in 8.2 million viewers, even when airing against the Oscars — but what these numbers may point to is how reality television has shed its “guilty pleasure” stigma for critical acclaim, and how it very well may be pulling focus in this new era of television. While scripted shows will always top the television hierarchy, unscripted programming has a secret weapon: drama that’s more addictive because it’s real. Are we in a new golden era of reality television?

Of the reality shows that have since become institutions, several premiered close to 20 years ago, perhaps marking the last, or first, golden age. The Bachelor, debuting in March 2002, arguably became the blueprint for modern competitive dating shows and recently finished its 27th season on ABC. MTV’s Laguna Beach premiered in 2004 with colossal cultural influence and led to the recently rebooted spinoff The Hills. Bravo’s Real Housewives empire followed in early 2006, sparking the fuse for an undeniable fixture in entertainment. The appeal of “real” interpersonal drama venturing toward WWE-like fights, displays of extreme wealth, and the search for love remains unchanged, and long-running franchises provide loyal fans with years of investment in cast member story arcs that rival prestigious dramas.

March 3, 2023 may have been an insignificant day for a very significant portion of the population, but for several million people, it was monumental. TMZ reported that Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules cast members Tom Sandoval and Ariana Madix had ended their nearly 10-year relationship due to infidelity; Sandoval had been revealed to be having an affair with another cast member, who also happened to be Madix’s best friend, Raquel Leviss. (Leviss’ government name was later revealed to be “Rachel,” a detail that viewers would go on to relish.) The breaking news caused viewership to double; the March 8 episode following the scandal rounded out at 2.2 million views. It was now a unique watching experience for fans, as well as an absolute frenzy; not unlike viral true crime shows like The Staircase documentary, viewers could essentially attempt to “solve” the crime (affair), looking for clues of when it started, watching as cast members grew suspicious, and, most fascinatingly, outright lie to their friends and millions of viewers on television.

While “Scandoval” is one of the biggest shocks the Bravo community has endured, it marks an era of its own and will be remembered with historic fervor; it’s relatively tame for the network’s stars, considering the betrayal didn’t involve any real crime. A simple search of “Housewives mugshots” proves how common the ladies’ brushes with the law have become. Real Housewives of Salt Lake City cast member Jen Shah currently sits in a federal prison camp in Bryan, Texas, for wire fraud after targeting the elderly. In March 2021, viewers watched Shah flee a scene during filming, moments before federal agents arrived with a warrant for her arrest. Shah went on to deny the allegations for an entire season before suddenly pleading guilty in a Manhattan courtroom and being ordered to serve 6.5 years in prison. The cameras rolled as Erika Jayne continued to film Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, featuring her newly modest lifestyle, as her estranged husband, attorney Tom Girardi, was disbarred and eventually indicted for theft of more than $18 million from clients. But the first Housewife to see hard time on-camera was New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice, following her 2015 conviction of fraud charges; she served 11 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut for signing incriminating papers at the request of her ex-husband Joe Giudice, who served three years and was ultimately deported to Italy. Aside from Shah, who is obviously unable to film, fans continue to indulge in both Jayne’s and Giudice’s personal journeys on their respective franchises, making for some incredibly rich plotlines.

The undeniable draw of such narratives has spun out into an art form. The most important job of reality producers is to package the reality the show is portraying, an element that has arguably hurt the Kardashians as they’ve obtained seemingly full control in their new Hulu series.

According to a seasoned talent and development source, audiences are no longer satisfied with one-dimensional characters, insincere villains, and catty fights produced for show. Viewers respond to the complexities of real dynamics, those possessing the god-given talent for authentically living their life on-camera, and of course, heightened real life drama. One can argue that contemporary reality television is a nearly academic anthropological study of human behavior. Essentially, the audience demanded more and the industry responded.

It’s an interesting time for reality television to legitimize itself, right as AI crash lands into the room and the Writers Guild of America’s first strike in 15 years fights for the future of scripted shows and livable wages. The 2007 writers’ strike led to a huge boom in unscripted TV, which begs the question - Is it primed for success in this limbo? Only marginally. Per the source, reality is undergoing many of the same struggles that scripted television is. That is, adjusting to the monumental shake-up of streaming. Television is being demanded at faster and cheaper rates across all genres — and in unscripted’s case, without official labor protections.

Scripted and unscripted television are much more entwined than most realize, with many of our most-viewed scripted shows based on real life drama and vice versa. Laguna Beach mirrored Fox’s The O.C., just as NYC Prep did Gossip Girl. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and her friends are based on writer Candace Bushnell’s experience living in New York City. Even critically acclaimed programming like Succession closely resembles the real-life succession narrative of the Murdoch family; in fact, Vanity Fair reported that one of the terms of the divorce settlement between Ruper Murdoch and his ex-wife Jerry Hall was that Hall couldn’t give story ideas to the Succession writers.

In this era marked by “Scandoval” and unprecedented viewership, unscripted television has become further cemented as a tenet of the entertainment world. Actors and reality stars may not be on equal footing, but the latter group has certainly jumped up a few rungs. The ethical debate — and any shame of fandom — has practically ceased. While nothing will substitute the art of scripted television, there is no denying society’s bottomless hunger for watching lives being ruined in real time.

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