Maybe you thought reality TV hit the lowest of the low when "Fear Factor" contestants devoured cockroaches, or when gold diggers paraded their wares in hopes of marrying a millionaire, or when Tila Tequila got a second shot at "love" with 10 guys and 10 girls.
Those shows look like "Masterpiece Theater" compared to what's coming.
Take, for instance, "Hurl," an eating-and-regurgitating competition in which contestants gorge themselves on everything from chicken pot pies to peanut butter sandwiches, then get strapped into spinning contraptions -- whoever vomits last wins.
Also in store for this summer: "Wipeout," in which contestants try to surmount obstacles that include giant, mud-covered "dirty balls" only to fall flat on their faces, and "Greatest American Dog," in which canines that could care less about TV are forced to compete with each other.
Then there's Nicole Richie. Famous solely for her friendship with Paris Hilton and their reality series "The Simple Life," Richie is reportedly shopping a show that would scour the nation for the next … Nicole Richie. According to EW.com, the show would take seven girls and test their ability to turn from small-town nobody into star, no talent required. The winner would be granted -- what else? -- her own reality show.
Sound like reality TV's running out of ideas? John de Mol seems to think so. De Mol, co-founder of the international media giant Endemol (responsible for hits such as "Deal or No Deal," "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor"), has started a Web site, TalpaCreative.com, to solicit show concepts from fans.
Is this it? Has the genre been tapped? Is the end to reality TV's reign of terror near?
No. If you think we've hit rock bottom, you ain't seen nothing yet.
"When Lindsay Lohan's mom gets a reality show, something's terribly wrong," David Bianculli, TV critic for NPR's "Fresh Air" and tvworthwatching.com, said about Dina Lohan's E! reality show. "This is not bottom of the barrel, this is excavating beneath the barrel. I don't think we're done yet. The question is, how deep can we go as we move towards the center of the earth?"
"If you lose on 'The Bachelor,' you become the bachelorette," he continued. "It's like a hydra — you cut off one head and two more take its place."
There are a couple of reasons reality series won't soon stop spawning. As depraved and trite as some shows may seem, they're guaranteed to get someone's attention. "America's Got Talent" may be a sloppy Joe to "American Idol" and a local carnival freak show, but it was TV's top-rated series last summer, averaging 11.5 million viewers, and is poised to draw as big an audience this season. Plus, reality series are, as a rule, cheaper for networks to produce than scripted shows (no A-list talent or writers to pay), and they're showing they can continue to reap revenue in syndication.
"They've started to show a little bit of afterlife. Cable shows are running reality marathons, so reality's seeming more repeatable than it used to be," said James Hibberd of The Hollywood Reporter. "I don't see reality going out of favor anytime soon, especially as ratings for the broadcast networks are eroding and the cost of producing a scripted show is going up. There's no way you can't do the less expensive, unscripted shows."