June 19, 2008 — -- 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."
Back in 1992, when Jonathan Murray pitched a show about seven strangers picked to live in a house, the idea was revolutionary. Today, were it not for its 20-season history, he's not sure "The Real World" would survive alongside the likes of "Flavor of Love" and "The Moment of Truth."
"'The Real World's' almost looking pure compared to a lot of what's on," he said. "It's difficult because everyone's trying to be louder than the next guy to get attention. There's this feeling that the concept has to be really loud to break through the clutter. You're trying to stand out. You want something that can be put into a great 30-second promo."
"There are still standards out there," he added. "But as these cable networks try to differentiate themselves from others, the standards will bend too."
"Hurl!" (premiering July 15 on the basic cable network G4) is an example of that. Ten years ago, it would have been out of the question to base a TV show around vomit. Today, a little artful editing allows it to star in its own reality series.
"Vomit on-screen is covered by animated buckets with a one- to five-bucket rating system," said Dale Roy Robinson, who developed and executive produces "Hurl!" with Tom Crehan. "Actually, the show has very little to do with vomit, and everything to do with competition and camaraderie. It's like a college dare all grown up into its own TV show. It's nothing different from what fraternity boys do."
Crehan added, "It's more wholesome and uplifting than any dating show you'd care to make."
Upchuck uplifting? Pardon the pun, but the concept's a little hard to keep down. Bianculli isn't sure viewers will continue to gravitate to extreme, outlandish competition shows like "Hurl!" despite the "Wow, I've never seen that on TV before!" factor.
"If 15 things come down the pike, they're going to close their eyes to all 15 of them, unless one leaps out," he said. "It's too much and too little at the same time."
The only way to get rid of reality TV may be a scandal the likes of which the genre has never seen. Darva Conger's annulling her marriage to Rick Rockwell days after marrying him on "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" didn't do it; nor did evidence that multiple scenes from "The Hills" have been staged and re-shot. It has to be bigger.
"It's hard to root for death," Bianculli said, "but there has to be something short of that."