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Last week, my family finished watching the 34th season of Survivor on CBS. Michelle and I have watched every episode of every season, and the kids joined us in watching a few years ago. We have fun picking players we think will win, and whoever picks the ultimate winner gets to choose a restaurant to visit. After a long absence, Dad here will be choosing our cuisine this time around!

Survivor is one of the longest-running reality shows, having started in 2000 here in the United States, though other variations from around the world began before that. Running two seasons every year, this powerhouse series even achieved the #1 ranking in television in some of its earliest iterations. The second season alone averaged about 30 million viewers every episode! This year’s season finale had about 8.5 million viewers, a substantial drop, but television has also changed dramatically in the intervening years, with more and more people not watching live.

This is one of the few shows I feel I need to watch that very night. There are folks at work who also watch it, and we like to discuss it the next morning. I hear other people talking about other shows that they watch religiously, many of them reality shows such as The Bachelor or The Voice. Clearly, these are good enough concepts that they keep showing up on a consistent basis. There’s even talk of bringing back American Idol, arguably the most successful reality show ever.

What is it about these shows that hook us? They certainly don’t really show much reality. It’s not realistic for a group of people to be stranded on an island and have to perform absurd challenges to gain food and avoid being eliminated. It’s not realistic for viewers to decide who the best singer or dancer is on a show. Perhaps “unscripted shows” would be a better choice of a name.

Television networks love them because they largely cost less than scripted television. You don’t have to pay big bucks to all these actors and actresses. The contestants all get something, but paying $1 million to one winner is substantially cheaper than some of these ongoing series that pay $1 million an episode to certain performers. If the show performs well in the ratings, you can still charge plenty for advertising and end up netting more profit with shows like Dancing With the Stars than on a typical week of NCIS.

And even though we think of reality TV as being fairly recent, it really has been with us for decades. Think about shows like Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos. Those go back quite a ways and probably cost very little to make. People my age remember The Real World starting on MTV when we were in college, where they would stick a bunch of random people together in a house and watch the drama develop.

Of course, many people suspect there is some behind-the-scenes chicanery, pushing some folks in these shows in a particular direction to create more eventful scenes. Watching host Jeff Probst run a Tribal Council on Survivor, you know he’s keenly aware of what’s been happening every moment out there, and he tries to steer conversations toward conflict.

It’s likely that a reason many of us enjoy this type of television is we can imagine ourselves being on some of them. Many people think they sing or dance well; in fact, I think we’ve had a couple local residents try out for some of the singing competitions. I watch the challenges on Survivor and think how fun it would be to try those out. Of course, living outside for over a month and dealing with bugs and storms and never showering would quickly keep me from ever seriously considering applying. How many people have sent in videos to be aired on a show, thinking it’s at least as funny as what they’ve seen on TV?

I wonder, though, if some shows like that have started to fade as YouTube becomes bigger all the time. After all, you can just search for videos of people getting hit in awkward locations or cats and dogs fighting or little kids saying funny things. Who needs to sit down to watch a whole episode when you can specify exactly what kind of funny videos you want to see?

To me, the best reality television will always be sports. You can’t always predict what will happen, and if you enjoy a sport, it’s compelling every time you watch it. You know that sports are not scripted in any way (at least, as long as you don’t believe some of the conspiracy theories out there), and you never know when you’re going to see something amazing that will have fans talking. Naturally, you can catch the highlight shows to see those, but there’s something incredible about watching it happen live. If you simply watched the highlights of last year’s Super Bowl, you missed the building drama as Atlanta watched their big lead fritter away and eventually disappear to the Patriots. No matter who you root for, that was compelling viewing.

So now my family waits for season 35 of Survivor. It’ll start up in September and have us in front of our television every Wednesday. It might not be high quality fare, but it brings us together as a family at a time when our lives usually involve running in many directions. That’s our reality, so you’ll forgive us for indulging a bit in a separate reality.

Word of the Week: This week’s word is uliginous, which means slippery or slimy, as in, “The contestant found many uliginous creatures on the island.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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