Farewell, Honey Boo Boo: Reality television’s troubles hit close to home

By Tom Baxter

Reality has hit a rough patch. We’re not speaking here of political or economic reality, where the news is seldom good, but something on which our state and city have made an indelible mark: reality entertainment.

Real people may be cheaper than film stars, but they can come with some nasty surprises, as demonstrated by the catastrophic (for the network, the family and most likely the whole town of McIntyre) collapse of the “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” franchise. The popular series was abruptly canceled by TLC after it was reported that Honey Boo Boo’s mother, Mama June Shannon, was keeping time with a man previously convicted of sexually molesting Honey Boo Boo’s older sister. Mama June has denied the story.

The speed with which the network acted may have to do with the embarrassment earlier this year when the star of another reality show, “Sons of Guns,” was charged with child endangerment, child rape and abuse. Reality has taken a hard turn among the Real Housewives of New Jersey as well, with the conviction and sentencing on fraud charges of Teresa and Joe Guidice. Before reporting for prison, the couple did a farewell (for now) interview on Bravo with producer Andy Cohen.

While the personal problems of reality stars may be as dark as any cable drama, they are only the beginning of reality’s problems. The proliferation of competition shows and improvised soap operas began when cable networks realized they could fill time with real people, egged on off-camera to dramatize their circumstances, more cheaply and effectively than they could by aping the Big Four networks with action shows and sitcoms.

As Variety details in a recent story, however, cable channels are beginning to face some of the same problems that wounded the Big Four networks, including a declining audience and increasing costs. One analyst described the recent drop in cable show ratings as “nothing short of staggering.” That in turn creates a problem for the media conglomerates which package the channels.

And face it, we have some skin in this game as well. Georgia, and particularly Atlanta, has become the mecca of guilty pleasures, with shows like “Being Bobby Brown,” “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta,” and “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” That’s a mighty broad swath of reality, and it’s only a fraction of all the shows produced here.

We may look down our noses at them and wonder aloud why anyone would waste the time to watch, but can we deny that they have become a part of Atlanta media history? Hell to the no. For better or worse, reality shows have marked an era in American culture, and the turbulence in the world of reality is a sign of larger changes to come.

The dip in cable ratings comes as the industry reverberates from HBO’s announcement, followed a day later by CBS, that it will begin a streaming service for its programming, meaning you can pick and choose your shows. How quickly all of television becomes unbundled is something for experts to speculate over, but the handwriting is on the wall.

Already it’s becoming harder for advertisers to measure viewership, because people tape their favorite shows and watch them later, or increasingly, watch them on cell phones or other portable devices. It no longer is filling huge amounts of air time which matters, but capturing a minute of the mobile viewer’s time.

The need that reality programming was created to fill is disappearing, which is the way real life often goes. We could see efforts to generate reality more cheaply as the competition gets tougher. There’s a French show which is just a daily selection of current YouTube clips, and I’ve wondered why something similar hasn’t been tried here already.

And since the Millenials who make up the core audience for reality shows are even more numerous than the Boomers, it may well be that as time goes on we’ll see new variations on the reunion tour, and as the real reality stars disappear, perhaps even variations on the tribute band. Picture it: NeNe and Kim, sassing each other across the couch, for decades to come.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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