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There are lame reality shows that are modestly popular. There are vapid reality shows that are hugely popular (E!’s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is their queen). But then there are super popular reality shows that, on paper, shouldn’t work at all (or, at least, shouldn’t be nearly as popular as they’ve managed to become). This is their story.
5. Bravo’s “Top Chef.” I love “Top Chef,” yet the show seemingly lacks a key ingredient. You can hear contestants sing on “American Idol,” watch them dance on “Dancing With the Stars,” watch them race on “Amazing Race.” But unlike other hit competition reality series on TV, you cannot play along at home, you cannot judge from the sofa. In other words, you cannot taste the food on “Top Chef.” To networks, this factor is usually a crucial component when picking shows. Nearly every dish sounds and looks pretty swell. Yet viewers have no clue how dishes taste, and therefore which is the winning dish, until the judges tell them. Tom Colicchio and his cohorts could be utterly full of crap and we would never know.
Why it works: It’s an expertly produced competition and, hey, viewers can still imagine what the dishes taste like, right?
4. CBS’ “Undercover Boss”: This show has been like some kind of media relations magic trick — corporate PR porn during a recession. Yes, the premiere had a mammoth “Super Bowl” lead-in, but that’s never been a guarantee of continued success. In a way, “Boss” has managed to celebrit-ize the CEO, who’s always just an aw-shucks decent family man who’s shocked to discover some light bulbs don’t work inside Store #541.
Why it works: The undercover format adds some tension (Will the CEO be discovered? Will he discover an embarrassing problem?) followed by cathartic feel-good resolution when the CEO of a billion-dollar company gives a teary-eyed wage slave a $5,000 scholarship.
3. ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars”: Most reality TV executives, if they’re being honest, admit they never saw this hit coming. Let’s start, and end, with the name. The first time you heard “Dancing With the Stars” you figured it had to be a cheese fest. It’s like hearing the title “Skating With Celebrities” (a knock-off effort that failed). It sounds so silly and retro, like some 1970s show with Bob Hope and Deney Terrio.
Why it works: People love to judge celebrities. “Dancing” puts cleverly cast famous faces into challenging situations where spectacular failure is always possible.
2. Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch”: Can you imagine executive producer Thom Beers pitching this? “Crab fishing!” [Beat]. Network executive: “Annnnd…?” Beers: “That’s it. They catch fish!” Network: “So there’s lots of drama among the crew?” Beers: “Not really. It’s so loud on deck you can’t even pick-up much audio. It’s mainly the crew focusing on finding fish.” Discovery launched “Deadliest” as a documentary special and it was so successful the network ordered a series that ended up inspiring countless fellow blue-collar reality shows, most of them produced by Beers (who presumably then just had to say “ice road truckers!” or “lumberjacks!”).
Why it works: There’s legitimate danger. The rest of the time, like fishing itself, there’s something soothing about the familiar tropes of the workday format. Also, the show introduced a group of working class characters that were unlike anything else on TV.
1. Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters”: It’s not surprising “Ghost Hunters” initially became a hit. A paranormal investigation docu-soap felt like a unique idea in 2004. What’s surprising is that it’s been six years and the show has gotten progressively more popular nearly ever year and spawned several spin-offs and knock offs despite its incredibly repetitive format. It’s popularity privately baffles the network and the show’s producers — how many times can you watch geeks blunder around a house in night vision thinking they just heard something? But the reason this show is deserving of #1 is that “Ghost Hunters” has double-downed on its improbable success by having super popular live episodes — as if this show doesn’t need editing.
Why it works: Viewers always feel like they’re on the verge of getting a incontrovertible smoking gun that reassures them there’s an afterlife.
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