Helping (rather than exploiting) contestants has become good for the conscience -- and for ratings.Reality programming is nothing if not attentive to trends.
So a few years back, when NBC noticed that ABC and Fox were having success transforming contestants with "Extreme Makeover" and "The Swan," respectively, the Peacock called in Reveille's Ben Silverman and Mark Koops to help it compete.
But the Reveille guys weren't interested in carving up faces on national TV.
"Ben Silverman looked at me and said, 'How do I tell my mom I do a plastic surgery show?' " Koops recalls. "So we thought we could do this the right way."
That thinking led to "The Biggest Loser" (co-produced with 3Ball Prods.), which launched on NBC in 2006 and has become a worldwide cash cow. The success of "Loser," as well as ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," has led nets to develop more shows effecting positive change in participants.
"We struggle on this end of the business with the idea that reality shows are this fallen genre," says Robert Sharenow, senior vp nonfiction and alternative programming for A&E, which airs the critically lauded "Intervention." "We're always paddling upstream from low expectations."
So-called "aspirational" programming -- everything from VH1's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew" and "Sober House" to MTV's "Steve-O: Demise and Rise" and ABC's "Wife Swap" -- upends those expectations. The Alphabet recently partnered with Ryan Seacrest and chef Jamie Oliver for a series that will bring healthy foods to America's fattest cities, and CBS is developing a show with "Survivor" alums Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst that will help terminally ill people fulfill their dreams.
So why now?
Tony DiSanto, president of programming for MTV, says he is simply responding to a generational shift in his network's audience.
"There's a feeling of hope and of wanting to help each other," says DiSanto, who is developing "Buried Life," about four guys who travel around America assisting others. "Millennials believe they can do anything, but they want to do it by helping each other out rather than by ripping each other."
Jeff Olde, executive vp production and programming at VH1, calls these series "lifeboat shows." "They give you the feeling that you're not alone, that there are people going through difficult troubled waters together and trying to get to the other side," he says.
Still, Chris Coelen, CEO of RDF Media USA and executive producer of "Wife Swap" and Fox's "Secret Millionaire," says a good show requires more than just do-gooding.
"You have to deliver that aspiration in a fun package," he notes. "If you can combine the idea of helping people at the same time as you're providing an entertaining experience -- for me, personally, that's a bull's-eye."
Plus, when participants continue on the straight and narrow after filming stops, the show benefits via increased credibility.
"The best shows have authenticity to them," Sharenow says. "The addicts on our shows are getting help. These people are reclaiming their lives, and it's a positive and responsible portrayal. We've had addicts who haven't gone into treatment, but the vast majority of them do."
Producers also note that the experience of making aspirational TV can rub off on those in the control room.
"To come to work and be emotional like this is a very rare thing," says Anthony Dominici, "Home Edition" executive producer. "To find success in giving back to others is an awesome thing. It's rare to be a reality producer and say, 'Watch this, it's awesome, it's going to change your life.' "