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.


Apologies because this is still kind of off-topic (it's not a prime-time reality show we all watch together), but I'd been kind of cool to the recent Electric Company reboot, until I saw THIS (sorry about bad video quality): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beVZZTsoxho Way to hit Mommy right in her 80s-raised, ska-loving sweet spot, Electric Company! We saved that episode on the DVR forever, and our younger son insists that we all dance together when the song comes on.

Oh, and my mom ("Savta") loves Shark Tank, so maybe we'll watch it with Hoobie Jr. when she visits later this summer.


Netflix* streaming means that we really don't watch any prime-time TV with the kids at the moment, but our 3-year-old son in particular ADORES two PBS shows we caught "by accident" one Saturday morning after an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine: New Scandinavian Cooking (Whose host, a few weeks ago, cooked meat in an active volcano [AWESOME!] and boiled broccoli by dangling it by a string over a hot-spring spout. Our son: "Look, Mommy! He's fishing broccoli!") and the local-ish Wisconsin Foodie. (We're in the Chicago 'burbs; grandpa and dear step-grandma live in Wisconsin. I've mentioned that during Wisconsin Foodie, and this has caused our son to think the show itself is a place to visit. "We go to Wisconsin Foodie, Mommy?!") I think the kids also might like both shows because they show lots of pictures of cows. Watching Wisconsin Foodie is kind of a happy torture for Mommy, though; all those tasty-looking artisanal cheeses! A visit to New Glarus Brewing Co., whose fine products my dad is often kind enough to bring me when they visit!

James, have you and the Tuned In Jrs watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, by any chance? (Streaming on Netflix* now!) We watched it with our 7-year-old, and all three of us ADORED it. It ranks right up there with my favorite grown-up series of the last decade.

And big kid, little kids (3-year-old twins), and Mommy and Daddy also love the Imagination Movers special "Rock-O-Matic" (also on Netflix*), which is just concentrated joy in televisual form. I bought the soundtrack "for the kids" but find myself listening happily to it in the car on the way to work....

Our daughter was recently given a stuffed duck as a present; she promptly named it "Ducky Mo-Mo." (I am aware that this actually may implicate us/cast a negative light on our permissive TV viewing habits. :-) Should a 3.8-year-old be watching Phineas & Ferb with her older brother? I... dunno!) She likes me to sing the Ducky Mo-Mo jingle to her as I tuck her in at night. ("Who is the happy-time toy-toy/for every girl and boy-boy?") See, um, positive messages of gender neutrality in play! Yeah, that's it!?

Our oldest started learning the parts of speech in class this year, so we introduced him to two happy relics of our childhood: Mad Libs and Schoolhouse Rock! ("Lolly, Lolly, Lolly....") I am delighted to say they both hold up really well.

We still don't have enough experience yet with prime-time "family" TV to say, but as far as kids' TV itself goes, it really is a great time to be a parent.

But yeah, one issue with live, not-directly-for-kids TV (another reason we watch a lot of Netflix*) is the commercials. This was a problem with last summer's Olympics, even, too. Then-6-year-old Hoobie Jr. and I were innocently watching volleyball or somesuch as the twins were napping one Saturday afternoon, and the sudden, violent Bourne Supremacy and Total Recall ads (at 1:00 in the afternoon!) started coming so thick and fast we had to switch to (glitchy) streaming.

*I promise I am not a shill/paid troll commenter for Netflix. Just describing our lives. On the other hand, if Netflix would *like* to pay me.... :-)

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@TheHoobie Avatar is still on our to-do list. We introduced the Jrs. early to Schoolhouse Rock, which holds up wonderfully, but then gets really bad when you get to the 1980s and the Money Rock series. It's sort of the Boogie Nights of children's educational TV.


(Oops, make that "Bourne Legacy," not "Supremacy." Sorry, Bourne enthusiasts. Anyway, the commercial = lots of noisy motorcycle-crashing and people-punching.)