New York Magazine recently published this fascinating column, "The Near Fame Experience," which takes a look at the many failing stars of Bravo's Project Runway.
It got me thinking, do any stars of reality shows really do well? And how does that affect the future of the shows they were on? I believe the successful stars are few and far between - Top Chef's Harold Dieterle, The Next Food Network Star's Guy Fieri, HGTV's Design Star's David Bromstad, and a few folks from American Idol.
While watching Hell's Kitchen this week, I thought to myself, "Does it really matter who wins?" As much as I loved season one winner Michael, the first I've heard about him since his win was on this season's second-to-last episode. As the New York Magazine article points out, no one has seen anything from Project Runway's season one winner Jay McCarroll lately. And, these are only two of the many, many winners of reality shows who have gone on to do, well, nothing. At least nothing we've heard about.
Viewers invest a lot of time in these reality shows, and we expect results. HGTV's Design Star has done something rare - they've shown viewers that their time pays off. Audiences voted in the season finale for the winner, and when David Bromstad was chosen, the viewers' dedication was rewarded. David's resulting show, Color Splash, has since been picked up for a second season. HGTV didn't just use Design Star as a ratings ploy, they took the winner and helped further flesh out Bromstad into a star. Of course, that raises the bar for season two's winner, but at least viewers of the show know that their votes and time spent watching won't be taken for granted.
The Next Food Network Star's Guy Fieri has an awesome personality and has become another household name on The Food Network, which is no easy feat. There's a lot of pressure on this season's winner, Amy Finley. If her show isn't a hit, who will care who they pick next season on the show?
It's not just the shows that produce other shows that come out with successes. Top Chef's season one winner Harold Dieterle recently opened his New York City eatery Perilla. I took my boyfriend there for his birthday and we were both very pleased. Besides the fact that we were way too excited to eat his "spicy duck meatballs" which he made on the charity cook-off, and we squealed when he quickly walked through the restaurant, we had a great dinner. The food was all spot on.
Reality shows offer their contestants a huge opportunity. They get to showcase their talents for millions of people. It's a rare chance, and one that no person should take for granted. Harold Dieterle was an ordinary chef prior to Top Chef. He was talented, yes, but who knew who he was? Dieterle went on Top Chef, kicked its butt, won, and used it to open his own restaurant. Sure, he could have opened up a restaurant prior to the show, and with his cooking skills, it would have been a good restaurant. But his Top Chef fame makes that restaurant all the more exciting and that much more of a destination. People want to go to "Harold's restaurant," not just "some restaurant that I heard has good food."
Deiterle took the reality show experience and did exactly what he should have with it: He used his skills, mixed it with the fame, continued to use his talent in the kitchen, and went on to fulfill his dream of opening a restaurant. Top Chef season two winner Ilan Hall, on the other hand, is doing things in the exact opposite fashion. Hall is doing appearance after appearance, and is letting his reality fame run on for as long as it can. By the time it ends, Hall will still not have opened a restaurant, and he'll be back at square one. Reality show popularity may last longer than fifteen minutes, but it doesn't last forever.
Viewers want to see the competitive reality show winners do something after the show ends. When we watch shows like Survivor, we don't expect the winners to do anything outrageously special with their lives after. We only watch The Hills for the entertaining drama, especially where Lauren and Heidi are concerned. But shows like Top Chef, Top Design, Project Runway, Shear Genius, Design Star, The Next Food Network Star, American Inventor, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Rock Star: Supernova, America's Got Talent and America's Next Top Model are different. They are based on talent, and what's the point if the person with the supposed greatest amount of talent can't use their talent in the real world?
I sometimes would rather a show end by saying "You know what? It turns out that no one was that great this season. So, we're not going to pick a winner. Instead we'll try again next season with better casting."
In some ways, that would make me more pleased than what we currently see. For one, as I said before, The Next Food Network Star's Amy Finley has a lot riding on her. If she fails, why will viewers want to tune in next season? Why will they care who wins when the chances are pretty good that the winner won't end up with more than six episodes before they fade away into oblivion?
As much as I love watching the designs on Project Runway, if I know the winners will continue to be unable to create decent fashion lines with their prize money, I'll start to lose interest. Rock Star: Supernova was an entertaining ride, but after Supernova got sued and had to actually change their name to Rock Star: Supernova, they also slipped from the spotlight. And what about all the other contestants on the show who swore they'd have songs on the radio within weeks? Haven't heard from them again. Then there's Benji from So You Think You Can Dance. Yes he was talented, but after declining the Celine Dion contract prize, his star has lost its shine as well (except, of course, when he reappears on the show this season).
Most reality shows do their part in being entertaining, but it's still not too much for viewers to expect a reality show based on talent to a) actually cast talented people and b) produce a winner who has the potential to be successful. The more these shows turn out letdowns as the winners, the less interest viewers will have in them. And when those shows get canceled due to poor ratings, new reality shows will spring up in their place, and the cycle will continue. Networks should either admit when they've picked a poor cast, further help their winners, or stop churning out faulty reality shows and focus on the ones that actually generate stars. Perhaps reality shows could then actually have some meaning.