Has Washington D.C. Shaken Its Boring Reputation?

Washington D.C., based reality TV shows surge in last year.

ByCullen Dirner
August 05, 2010, 8:24 PM

Aug. 6, 2010— -- Reality television has invaded our Nation's Capital. In the last year alone, Washington, D.C., has played host to "The Real World," "Top Chef," "DC Cupcakes" and now the power-hungry White House-crashing cast members of "The Real Housewives of D.C."

It has been over 18 years since the original mainstream reality TV series aired. On May 28, 1992 MTV's "The Real World" made its debut, putting seven strangers in a New York City house and letting them live their lives on camera.

So why has it taken D.C. 18 years to get reality based TV set in its town?

"The question is not why now, but why not earlier?" asks Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Thompson says he is not surprised by this surge in Washington based programming, adding that it's an "identifiable place." However, he admits that D.C. has suffered from a reputation of being a "9-5 city," where most people live in Virginia and Maryland and commute in for work.

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales says this increase in programming could be as simple as a change in administration.

"I think that for several years there wasn't much interest in Washington because Bush wasn't a very fascinating, glamorous figure. He was just kind of boring. But then with a young, dynamic, history-making president, people are more interested in Washington," Shales said.

Shales also pointed out in the last "quarter-century," there has been an abundance of scandals that have created fascination with the city. Most recently, "Real Housewives" cast members Michaele and Tariq Salahi caused an international uproar by famously gate-crashing the White House State Dinner last year.

Scandals aside, there are always cupcakes. Georgetown Cupcake, to be specific.

Highlighted on the reality based TLC show "DC Cupcakes," the bakery is owned by Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis, who say they believe their series "shows a different side of the city." Most people come to Washington to see "the monuments," they claim, and shows like theirs give tourists more options.

According to Nieslen ratings, however, the "DC Cupcakes" premiere didn't draw as much attention as "The Real World DC" and "Top Chef." Still, TLC has picked them up for another season.

Ratings for Reality TV have grown exponentially over the years. According to Nielsen, in 2006 the premier of "The Real Housewives of Orange Country," had an estimated audience of 430,000. In 2009, the premier of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," was estimated to have an audience of 1.7 million viewers.

To be sure, these numbers are not nearly as big as those enjoyed by network television shows. But critics agree they are gaining critical mass.

Robert Thompson maintains that this popularity has nothing to do with location and everything to do with the shows' characters.

"It isn't really so much of where you place it, as it is a matter of choosing the right people," Thompson said. "The 'Jersey Shore' part is important, but it is casting, casting, casting: people that are fun to watch because they behave in really outrageous ways."

If Robert Thompson is right, "The Real Housewives of DC," the viewers are in for a treat.

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