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Reality Replicas

4/16/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Tattoos and tiaras. Hoarders
and housewives. Doomsayers and repossessers.
This, you could say, is a microcosm
of the current state of reality TV. And
there’s one guarantee for any fan of these
and many other themes: You’re sure to find
them represented by show after show — in
ever more subtle iterations — in abundant
numbers across different channels.

Imitation among television programs has
been around since the second-ever show
came on the air. But TV producers and network
execs — ever-aware of the competition
for viewer attention — have made something
of an art form out of watching the competition
and slightly tweaking any number of
successful formulas, retrofitting shows to
suit ever-blurring brands.

“It used to be cable networks tried to
brand themselves,” Brad Adgate, senior vice
president of research at Horizon Media, said.
“Now, they just want to get viewers.”

Marjorie Kaplan, president and general
manager of Animal Planet, added: “In the
competitive landscape we’re operating in,
you’re foolish if you’re not looking around
and seeing what’s working in other places.
There isn’t anybody in the creative
landscape not saying, ‘Hey, got a
zombie show we should be looking at?’ ”

In some cases, certain popular reality
themes have crowded the dial with the
numbing insistence of extras from Dawn
of the Dead
. Looking through the course of
several years and myriad networks, it’s even
easy to spot the genealogy and progression
of an idea. Of course, what’s most galling for
any network is to see some concept they’ve
birthed be usurped. Then again, that’s the
charter: if you can outwit, outplay, outlast a
rival network with a similar concept, you’re
the one that gets the ratings and ad dollars,
and potentially more eyeballs tuning in to
see what else you have on, provided you can
back it up.

“If my audience is watching shows about
swamps, am I foolish if I’m not looking at
swamplands in the U.S. as an opportunity?”
Kaplan posited. “The creative challenge
is, Hmm, people are watching that; how
does that relate to what I have to offer in my
brands and what do I have to say that’s different?
What is my new and different take
on it?”

Kaplan and Animal Planet have been
very good at staying on point with a branding
message that has intentionally strayed
away from a pet-oriented network. “I actually think we sort of tapped a vein in that desire on the part of human beings
to get back to our more real ‘visceral, less constrained by civilization’
selves,” she says, pointing to a show like Hillbilly Handfishin’, where reel and
rod are replaced by real digits. “There is something real out there that people
are finding and once things start to emerge, it’s a little bit like lemmings.”

Sometimes the replication occurs within the network. A decade ago, Discovery’s
TLC almost ran its home-makeover show ratings into the ground
with so many spinoffs of Trading Spaces. And of course, other
networks piled on.

“There are so few unique ideas that when there is one, everyone want
to have what they believe is their unique take on it and sometimes there
is,” Katz Television Group vice president and director of programming Bill
Carroll said.

After that, it’s game on — and, apparently, fair
game. For confirmation, take a look at a pair of
ultra-popular reality genres: “Renovation Projects”
or “Trash or Treasure.” Here’s a chart detailing
what came first, what came after — and
what all of them were thinking.

September