Tuned In

Why Reality TV Is the New Family TV

The genre that was supposed to be the death of civilized society has become—at least some of it—the best primetime programming for parents to watch with kids.

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Greg Gayne/FOX

Thirteen summers ago, when a pair of shows called Survivor and Big Brother debuted on CBS, there were uneasy cries that reality TV was coarsening our civilization. Contestants were encouraged to lie and backstab one another! People were eating actual rats! What was going to be next: snuff films?

Thirteen years later, you can debate how well reality TV, overall, has fulfilled its promise as a hell-bound handbasket. But I do know this: when the regular TV season ended last week and the summer premiere season started, it was an exciting time at home, because it meant Masterchef was coming back, and we could watch it together with the Tuned In Jrs.

Reality TV is a big, diverse medium, of course: some of it is raunchy, some of it ugly, some obnoxious (like tonight’s despicable let’s-fire-someone-fest Does Someone Have to Go? on Fox), and some of it very, very good. In other words, it’s not unlike scripted TV.

But another funny thing has happened over the past generation: reality TV has also become the new version, and maybe the last bastion, of primetime family viewing. It’s not just Masterchef: nearly every TV series my wife and I watch with the Tuned In Jrs. is a reality show.

We handicap The Voice contestants’ odds every week. The Amazing Race has given us a whole new perspective on airport travel. Shark Tank captivates the kids, and has shown me—one of the least entrepreneurial people I know—what a fascinating process valuing a business is. Top Chef, Chopped, Market Warriors—if it involves cooking or selling something, we’ll watch it. Other families I know, anecdotally, are into Storage Wars or Duck Dynasty (the latter, I guess, much like families in the ’60s were into The Beverly Hillbillies).

Most of these are competition reality shows, which is no accident: like sports, reality shows like these are a genre of TV that can appeal to kids’ and adult interests without denying either one. Most of these series are made for adults, often without any particular goal of being all-ages entertainment.

But on their own terms, they reflect things kids—at least, the Tuned In Jrs.—are interested in: competition, creation, scorekeeping. They make performance more exciting, or they game-ify aspects of adult life, like cooking or traveling or making money. And though “appropriate” is a relative term, they tend to do it in relatively clean terms. (OK, last night’s Masterchef included a contestant who cooked roadkill, resulting in about five million “beaver” double-entendres, but if they didn’t sail over the Jrs.’ heads, it’s because they’ve heard far worse on the school bus.)

When people complain that there are fewer good TV shows for families to watch together, it’s often assumed that means that TV has become more vulgar or adult. Which of course is true in some ways, but really the overall trend is simply that, as TV has become more various and fragmented, it’s become more specific. Everyone has their own demo-targeted TV now, children and parents alike. We actually live in a pretty great era for kids’ TV, and I’ve written endlessly here about great shows that could only exist in a time of many cable outlets and greater creative license. But most adults have limited tolerance for shows written for kids, and it will be years before I show the Jrs. more than the opening titles for Game of Thrones. (Which they love.)

And by the way, that’s fine. Like any parent now, I find navigating media with my kids to be a challenge sometimes. (Enough with the gross subway ads, please.) But I don’t expect, or want, media to cater to my particular concerns as a parent.

People sometimes assume that, because I’m a TV critic, I’m permissive about what my kids watch. Just the opposite–there are many things I watched as a kid that I would not let my own kids near. Yesterday, when news broke that Steve Forrest, star of the ’70s drama SWAT, had died, I was overcome with nostalgia, for a show that was pretty much a constant barrage of heavy-weapons fire (with a great theme song). What the hell was I doing watching this when I was seven years old?:

I remember enough to know that the good old days were not always as kid-sanitized as we may want to think. (We recently re-watched the original Bad News Bears, a fantastic movie about kids—which also happens to include underage drinking and a zillion racial and homophobic slurs.) And while I may miss The Cosby Show—we’ve been marathoning reruns from the DVR—plenty of the “family” sitcoms from my childhood, however warmly I may remember them, do not exactly hold up well. I’m glad instead that my kids are growing up in a time that has created primetime series like Lost–which they can watch, later, when they’re older.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for reality TV. If it’s sending society to hell, at least the kids and I can go there together.