Why reality TV won't kill ''Friends.'' Sure, ''Joe Millionaire,'' ''American Idol,'' and their kin are taking over the airwaves, but at least they're earning their timeslots, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 06, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Joe Millionaire: Fox; The Practice: Albert Sanchez/ABC

Why reality TV won’t kill ”Friends”

There’s lots of talk these days about how so-called ”reality TV” — whether it’s the giddyup-and-con-’em ”Joe Millionaire” or the songbird-screeching of ”American Idol” — is changing the TV industry, and probably for the worse. The argument goes something like this:

With the rise of reality shows, which are cheap to produce and usually have shorter runs than your average sitcom or hour-long drama (say, 8 weeks instead of 13 or 22 episodes), the economy of TV is changing. Networks are more likely to go with the cheaper product and spend less on developing new series that will forward the great progress of television. Talented actors, writers, and producers will be put out of work, replaced by nobodies who become 15-minutes-of-fame Somebodies.

I say: Hooey, with some reservations. Here’s the positive side of the reality revolution:

o Reality TV is never going to drive out sitcoms and dramas; it’s just become another genre, competing in the marketplace. If the marketplace (that is, prime time) becomes overloaded with such product, viewers will tune away, so don’t worry about ABC, CBS, and NBC becoming all-reality, all the time.

o It’s no wonder people would rather watch, say, ”Joe Millionaire” than ”The Practice.” At this point in both shows’ runs, it’s ”Joe” that’s got the pop-culture juice — the energy, the amusement, the, yes, drama — that ”The Practice” lacks right now.

o Sitcoms? Are you kidding? What sitcom is funnier, week after week, right now than the spectacle of Trista twisting guys around her little finger on ”The Bacherloette” or seeing Corey Feldman cry like a baby on ”The Surreal Life”? ”The Simpsons,” ”Curb Your Enthusiasm,” sometimes ”Friends,” always ”Andy Richter Controls the Universe” (but idiotic Fox is going to cancel it, aren’t you, you weasels?). Maybe if there were fewer sitcoms on the air for a while, pushed aside by the reality glut, writers would step back, reconsider the form, and come up with better laugh-attractors.

o Maybe the networks will also realize that the shorter-arc series that reality-TV has spawned should be applied to dramas and sitcoms. This would be better for the creators, who could craft their shows with more care. The best work in England, for example, has used a shorter number of episodes for years. For proof just look at BBC America’s ”The Office,” hands down the most hilarious, brilliantly acted, and produced sitcom of the year thus far — and its run is only six episodes. This shorter season is easier on busy, overworked viewers, who struggle to keep up with — or give up on — plotlines on shows that get drawn out for many weeks at a time.

So what do you think? Is reality TV a blessing or curse for the TV industry?