Remember the time when TV entertainment was pure escapism? No more. A lot of it today has to do with the very thing that we all want to escape from: reality. And most of us don't seem to be getting enough of it.
Just look at the popularity of War and Beauty, a runaway period drama hit on TVB Jade last year.
Though not exactly reality TV, its excellent portrayal of the ruthless and vicious politicking inside the Qing dynasty imperial court had thousands of viewers (2.6 million at its peak) hooked in the autumn. All that scheming and backstabbing is, apparently, something that they could all relate to in their real work/office life.
Sad but very true.
A friend, who is among the few who did not tune into the show, asked why anyone in their right mind would want to torture themselves, sitting through a show that reminds them of all the nastiness that went on during the day?
Well, the average 30+ point ratings that War and Beauty mustered does seem to suggest that local TV audiences are either sadistic or that we simply enjoy watching programmes that are realistic; shows we can relate to. This has been the trend in the west since the end of the 1990s.
According to the Hollywood trade paper Variety, only 33 comedies - traditional ratings boosters - were shown on the American networks last autumn, an almost 50 per cent drop from 62 in 1997. Many of these sitcoms - including classic hits such as Friends and Frasier - as well as drama series had yielded to reality TV shows.
Closer to home, this genre will continue to make its presence felt in our terrestrial/cable/satellite TV programming - especially in the English language - in 2005.
On TVB Pearl are a new (third) season of The Apprentice (with Donald Trump), The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best (with Richard Branson), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (third season), Supernanny and America's Next Top Model 4.
On ATV World there are Back to the Floor, Travel at the Top and Survivor, which is currently showing every Saturday at 9pm.
While American Idol has already made its return on STAR, The Contender, AXN Xtreme, While You Were Out, Fear Factor 5 (to name just the few) are all part of the 2005 reality show line-up on Cable TV.
Reality TV was a huge novelty in 1999-2000 when Big Brother and Survivor hit the screens across Europe and the United States. 'Real people' dealing with 'real life situations/dramas/dilemmas' and showing their 'real emotions' were compelling viewing. Today, there are well over 200 English-language reality TV shows, most of which are produced in the United States.
ATV World, always ready to experiment, heralded the way by showing Survivor in 2001. But it was TVB Pearl's decision to air Bravo/NBC's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy two years ago that got everyone talking. Who would have thought that a programme about five gay men giving one straight guy a facial/wardrobe/interior/taste makeover would go down so well in a conservative Chinese society such as Hong Kong?
But to say we are all reality TV-crazy is probably exaggerating. Let's face it, what other programme choices do we have (especially for the English- speaking populace)?
You see, as far as English-language programmes (on terrestrial as well as paid TV) go, what we can tune into is dictated by what local broadcasters can find in the international market, which is dominated by reality TV at the moment.
As one television executive recently told me: 'We are just waiting for a new genre to appear on the market.'
Also, one wonders how 'real' these shows are today. As viewers begin to get tired of the same old formats (the British Big Brother, for instance), producers are always ready to stage or impose dramatic/sensational elements in these programmes in order to spice them up. Participants are no longer just real people reacting naturally and genuinely to situations but more like guinea pigs in some twisted human/social experiment a la The Truman Show.
After all, why let reality gets in the way of a good drama?
For me, I have started to get slightly bored by these shows. If I want to watch a real-life drama in which some individuals are out to get each other, I just need to tune into Legco briefings on Cable News. Its all there - and definitely more entertaining.