In sync

TV taps teen-pop as the next playground for reality programming.

AMERICANS LOVE REALITY—when it’s on TV, that is. We can’t get enough of the stuff. And the thirst we feed isn’t even original: We ripped it off from the Europeans. Not only did their reality programs come first, but many of them are better (if you don’t believe me, check out PBS’ imported 1900 House, the show that places a modern British family in a strict turn-of-the-century home and turns on the cameras). Regardless of the fact that American reality shows arrive through our boob tube watered down and commercialized, Survivor and Temptation Island yield super-high ratings and through-the-roof watercooler action.

Americans have always used TV as an escape mechanism—fantasy islands and extraordinary lives provide exciting alternatives to a predictable world. But these days, reality programs merely allow viewers to participate in a lame form of voyeurism. Instead of facing their dry relationships and stale refrigerator offerings, our TV nation tunes in to watch couples be tempted into breaking off long-term relationships—with incentive provided by Fox.

Now instead of listening to the banal bubblegum pop music that tops the Billboard charts, TV watchers can spy on budding, bumbling teen idols on Making the Band or Popstars. Both of these recent reality programs chronicle the lives of young wanna-be pop stars in Star Search-meets-Real World fashion. The shows are great if you’re of the laughing-at-others-makes-me-feel-better-about-myself ilk, but if you desire an escape—or even a diversion—you’re better served by calling your cable provider and checking out HBO’s The Sopranos. Instead of a rendezvous with an imaginary universe, viewers of these musical reality shows get an exact replica of modern popular music, a mirror image of the shiny-faced, midriff-bared, Britney-worshipping, formula-following load of teenybopper crap. How captivating!

Last year, ABC gave us the boys’ side of the story. Making the Band, a Bunim/ Murray (Real World, Road Rules) production, currently airs in syndication on MTV. We saw the boys try out; we saw the 25 lucky finalists fly to Trans-Continental Entertainment’s Orlando headquarters to “train” with the likes of Lou Perlman, the producer/brain surgeon who manufactured ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. We saw the group trimmed down to eight and moved into an Orlando house, shackled together with hair products and harmonies. Of the eight, five of the beefcakes made the final cut—but not before much mayhem and frat-boy antics ensued. The boys broke curfew, had girl problems, and got in major trouble for flubbing their dance steps. The episodic scolding and reprimanding of Dan, Erik, Trevor, Ikaika, Jacob, Paul, Mike, and Ashley didn’t do much to instill a sense of awe or respect in this viewer’s mind, but 14-year-old girls go for that “bad boy” thing. The group adopted the name O-Town, an homage to the city that claims the aforementioned boy bands as well as a heavier-sounding chart-topper, Creed. (And you thought we had something special in the water around here!) The show is a bunch of mindless piss, but teenagers love it; O-Town’s eponymous debut, out on J Records, flies off the shelves. The band scored a top-10 hit with “Liquid Dreams,” and the album debuted last week at No. 5 on the Billboard chart.

THE FEMALE VERSION of Making the Band appears on the WB network; the fifth episode of the wildly popular series, Popstars, airs on Friday. This show also boasts a big-name team of producers, so by now we should all know for certain that it takes an army to create a hit single. Among them are Travis Payne, choreographer for Madonna and Courtney Love (!), and David Stanley and Scott Stone, the production team that brought you The Man Show, perhaps the epitome of lowbrow Americana.

So far on Popstars, we’ve witnessed a nationwide hunt for contestants. We’ve heard way too many off-key renditions of “What a Girl Wants.” We’ve wrenched along with the contestants’ anguish during three rounds of cuts. And we’ve seen a whole lot of mascara-colored tears and Christina Aguilera- inspired platform heels. Just as viewers watched O-Town learn to be professional musicians (or at least attempt to play them on TV), soon we’ll watch as the final five on Popstars move into a Los Angeles house together, commence rehearsals, and choose a name. The Australian version of Popstars, the show that our Yankee version copycatted, yielded a girl group called TrueBliss. Will our American girls come up with something as compelling? Stay tuned!

Where does the madness end? Not there. February 3, VH1 premiered its own Internet-bent version of reality music programming: Road to Fame tells the story of the winner of an online talent challenge.

It’s difficult to say what’s worse: that faux-Lolitas and ex-Mickey Mouse Club members dominate the pop charts—and in turn our popular culture—or that television executives profit by selling the recipes to eager, ignorant teens. Either way, we’re caught in a vicious cycle. Video never did kill the radio star, and unfortunately, I doubt that prime-time television will squash the bubblegum pop groups.