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Real-life drama of others is attraction

Friday, April 14, 2006

SIKESTON -- Between broken alliances, insults from Simon Cowell and Donald Trump's most recent aim of fire, conversation at the office water cooler will never be at a loss.

So whether television viewers love it or hate, it looks like reality TV has made a permanent place not only in viewers' homes, but in American culture.

Pansy Glenn, a self-proclaimed "Survivor" freak, said she has missed maybe three episodes of all 12 seasons of the CBS show.

"I just love it," the Kewanee resident said. "I like the twists and turns of it. I like to watch the people's reactions to things and the responses to things."

Glenn is even in a friendly "Survivor" pool with friends and co-workers. "I'm crazy about it," Glenn said about her favorite reality show.

And nearly four years since its debut, ''American Idol'' continues to be at the top of the Nielsen ratings. The Fox show has attracted 25 million to 33 million viewers each telecast this season.

Sometimes reality shows can sneak up on viewers and suck them in without even realizing. Just ask Missy Marshall of Sikeston.

"The funny thing is I don't really like reality TV shows," Marshall said. "I watched MTV's 'The Real World' in the first two seasons. And after that, I got away from it. Some of these reality shows are so crazy that you know it can't be right."

But halfway through ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" -- a show her husband watched -- Marshall admitted she got hooked.

"I have found, as a family, we really enjoy watching 'Dancing With the Stars,"' said Marshall, adding she's also a fan of Bravo's "Top Chef."

Even if they don't watch reality TV, people can't really get away from it, Marshall said.

"I never watch 'Survivor,' and they discuss it so much in the office, I know about it," Marshall said.

So what is it that makes these shows so appealing to viewers?

Kristi Ottis, a clinical therapist at Bootheel Counseling Services in Sikeston, said she thinks it's the unpredictability that draws viewers.

"It's live (or taped live) and typically there's no editing, and I think a lot of fans are able to better identify with the people in those shows. It's not actors; it's everyday people," said Ottis, who said she's a fan of "American Idol," "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette."

Viewers can see themselves doing those things and in that role, Ottis said. And these people are not extremely rich, paid actors, she added.

Reality programming has been around -- in different formats -- since the early days of radio and television, said Dr. Jim Dufek, professor/TV operations manager for the Department of Communication at Southeast Missouri State University. Some forms of "reality TV" include the original days of reality-based talk shows and daytime game shows, he said.

"But I think you have to look really closely at how reality TV changed it, and give credit to the MTV generation," Dufek said.

In 1992, MTV's "The Real World" spawned the new genre of television, making room for a whole gamut of reality shows on all major networks and several cable channels. MTV continues to bring reality to the small screen with new seasons of "The Real World" and shows like "Laguna Beach" and now-defunct "Newlyweds."

"People complain about it (reality TV) all the time, but it is here to stay," Dufek said. "And we should embrace it and make it part of our culture."

Also there's more substance to some reality shows than others. For example, ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" has built homes for families in need. Many people also enjoy the Food Network, Dufek said.

"They learn to love and embrace food, and make it a part of their culture," Dufek said. "It's not just eating goat gonads like you might see on 'Fear Factor.' And you realize what you can do with cilantro."

Reality TV also has a big impact culturally and financially, Dufek said. Take "American Idol," for instance. Stations are making a lot of money, and it's a very inexpensive way of making programming because it doesn't cost as much as a regular series and there isn't the cost for actors, he said.

Reality TV isn't going away, Dufek said. More channels and networks are taking note of the popularity of reality TV. Even PBS is pitching a reality show which takes people out of urban areas and puts them on a ranch, he noted.

"They know reality TV is part of the media culture, and now they have to embrace it," Dufek said about network moguls.

Meanwhile, Glenn toyed with the concept of being a "Survivor" contestant. She said she would love to be on the show but doesn't think she would last five minutes.

"The main thing about it is you're surviving with none of the elements we need to survive -- and you have to deal with all these weird people," Glenn said. "They call it a tribe -- and it couldn't be anything further from that."

But there's also "The Amazing Race" -- another favorite of Glenn's.

"Now that one," Glenn said, "I think I could do ..."