The Irony of Choice

If you don’t like reality shows, don’t turn on your TV next year. The big four broadcast networks are running out of new scripts because of the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America. By January, the number of reality-based television shows, which do not require writers represented by the guild, will jump about 50 percent.

After the last strike in 1988, according to the New York Times, a whole new genre of television programming emerged like COPS and America’s Most Wanted.

But this time the number of reality shows is much, much higher. Prepare yourself for even more American Idol, Big Brother, Wife Swap, Supernanny, The Bachelor, Survivor, Deal or No Deal, and a reprisal of really bad TV from the 1980s, American Gladiator.

There’s another difference between then and now: irony.

Writers are demanding a greater share of revenue generated by programs watched on the internet and other new technologies, like cell phones and iPods. But the strike may actually increase an already growing exodus of viewers from television to the internet.

Just last week, Reuters reported that NBC has begun reimbursing advertisers roughly $500,000 each for not making its ratings goals, the first time that has happened in years. Meanwhile, the other networks have been offering “make-goods,” or free advertising slots to advertisers, instead of paying them back. The report said that NBC’s woes started before the strike. By January, ratings are expected to be far worse, as the network continues to face a writer’s strike and turns to more reality-based TV.

These are problems stemming from people not watching TV. What about problems from people who do? The Hollywood Reporter recently published a story about a new study that found that people who own DVRs and TiVo systems tend to skip advertisements (four out of five with TiVo, 82 percent with DVRs). At the same time, video-on-demand seems to be the wave of the future for television. The question is how to make money.

For years, a fundamental principle of American capitalism has been giving consumers greater choice. More options means more freedom means more profits. That was true as long as the producers, in this case broadcast networks, were in control of the product. The networks know this; the writers do, too. With the rise of new technologies, the very consequence of American capitalism, that control is no longer guaranteed and, as a consequence, neither are profits.

Isn’t that ironic?