Reality TV Must Either Evolve or Die — Here’s Why & How

Jeff CollinsBy Jeff Collins, President, Collins Avenue

“A show about girls who take dance class, and their mothers? You must be kidding. Who wants to watch that?”

I heard it more than once when my company was developing the Lifetime reality series Dance Moms, and it taught me a great lesson: If you bring together interesting characters, provide a natural framework that allows for them to play out a full range of emotions, stay out of everybody’s way and film things as they unfold, there is no end to the subject matter viewers will embrace.

In reality television, it’s not the dance classes, pawn shop transactions, storage containers or duck calls that audiences tune in to see. Nearly 30 seasons after it began, The Real World still airs on MTV and does well because they do what we do at Dance Moms – bring together interesting characters at a time in their lives when they have a lot on the line. Viewers are captivated, and root for – or against – them as they find their way.

But while some elements of making reality TV remain the same, the genre definitely needs to keep evolving. How do you do it?

Look at what’s working and reinvent it with a new twist, some original take on a tried-and-true formula. Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance told us viewers will watch shows about dancing, but did we need yet another competition show cast in the same mold? Probably not, so with Dance Moms we sought something different, and went for a smaller-sized production that focused more on the people involved and the pressures of rehearsal and competition than the actual performances. Viewers connected with and “got” the characters quickly, and our job became to showcase dance instructor Abby, the moms and the girls as they face new dance competitions. That’s where we found the drama.

Consider Gender Parity.
One big challenge for reality now is to develop shows that attract both male and female viewers. Men gravitate towards pawnshops and duck calls, whereas women like the interpersonal drama and suburban glamour of housewives and the unrelenting drive of stage moms. Men don’t like to “feel” like they’re watching a docu-series, while women don’t seem to mind. Shows that can attract and hold both male and female viewers are the holy grail of reality.

Dance Moms Photo by Scott Gries

Dance Moms
Photo by Scott Gries

Big Budgets Aren’t The Answer.
Big network talent shows have always done well in spectacle, but those made primarily for cable networks are created on more of a shoestring, and they must make up for a lack of funds with original concepts. And that is fine. Bravo’s Housewives franchise or even our new show, Raising Asia can appeal to a smaller but extremely loyal audience and do just fine as long as you change up the formula enough to give viewers something original.

Everything Comes Around Again.
We don’t have to throw refrigerators off buildings in order to be original, however. Everything is cyclical, so let’s get back to basics. What worked before will work again as long as it has a fresh approach. Still, what works well on one show does not always translate to other. Authenticity is key, viewers are smart, and they will quickly reject characters or situations that don’t ring true. How many times have we tried to take great characters and develop them into a persona that ticks off all the boxes the research department says will work for everyone? It might work for scripted series like Mad Men, but not for reality shows.

Those who predicted an early death for the reality TV genre were wrong, but only partially so. Sure, far more shows will fail than succeed but, good, quality programs with strong characters and interesting processes will work. We can’t keep trying to duplicate the formula of something that worked before, expecting to catch lightning in a bottle again. It almost never works. If we get back to focusing on the stories and the characters we as creative producers find to be important and entertaining, our genre should continue to thrive long into the future.

Dance Moms airs Fridays on Lifetime at 9 p.m. ET.

Jeff Collins is president of Collins Avenue and executive producer of “Dance Moms” and its spinoff series including “Raising Asia.” With more than 1,200 hours of television production under his purview, he served as producer for the Intimate Portraits series, Leeza, Bridezillas, and more than 500 hours of documentary, news and talk content.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large.  In their own words, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at [email protected]

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