It's a genre known for screaming matches, hot-tub hookups and contestants who are there to win, not to make friends. But as of late, reality television has taken a kinder, gentler turn.
Fire up Netflix and you'll see sweet-natured shows such as Queer Eye, which kicked off its fourth season with a public school teacher getting an enthusiastic makeover, and a slew of food programs where people are lovely to each other. Think The Great British Baking Show, Sugar Rush, Street Food and Nailed It!, where contestants giggle with the hosts about their haplessness in decorating cakes.
Netflix's dating show, Dating Around, is practically humiliation-free. And in the hit series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing guru gently guides Americans into discarding stuff that doesn't "spark joy."
"We say 'spark joy' now for everything," says Brandon Riegg, the Netflix vice president in charge of unscripted series.
Riegg says Netflix has made heartwarming reality shows central to its brand, though that wasn't always the plan. The success of Queer Eye and Nailed It! convinced Netflix to double down on reality shows featuring people being kind to each other, he says. (Of course, because Netflix does not release audience numbers, we don't precisely know how successful those shows are.)
"In the beginning, it wasn't an intentional strategy," Riegg says. "When we decided to get into original unscripted programming, it was really a blank slate."
It should be noted that not all of Netflix's reality programming can be described as sweet. Its game show Flinch doesn't disguise its nasty streak, and Netflix recently took heat over its upcoming Prank Encounters, where people working in short-term jobs are subject to hidden-camera pranks. (Netflix says the show, hosted by a teenage star of the sci-fi hit series Stranger Things, is "spooky, supernatural and over-the-top, and everyone had a great time.")
Still, the burgeoning trend of positive reality programming has spread across the industry, according to Riegg.
"Everyone's noticing that viewers are more drawn to that, that there's an appetite for that," he says, pointing to Fox's The Masked Singer and NBC's Songland. NBC is also the home of the notoriously nice crafting show Making It, and the network may have helped to start this trend years ago, with weight-loss program The Biggest Loser, along with ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (which Riegg helped to develop).
"As a critic and fan of reality TV, I love it," says Andy Dehnart, creator of the website Reality Blurred. "It makes it a lot easier to watch, to write about and just enjoy."
Dehnart points out these shows appeal to advertisers and to families looking for shows to watch together. Sunny reality shows may provide something of a counterbalance to the deeply dark scripted shows dominating TV of late: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, The Handmaid's Tale, Killing Eve, Ozark, Better Call Saul, Succession and so on.
Of late, reality shows are providing a much-needed break from people being rotten to each other, says Tara Long, president of unscripted TV for Entertainment One, which produces such reality shows as Growing Up Hip Hop, LadyGang and Siesta Key.
"We actually have production meetings where we say we don't want fighting," she says. It's a profound shift from the days when the genre relied on people flipping tables for drama. "Ten years ago, you'd need that in every episode to build up to your final act."
I asked Long if people who make reality television might be trying to change the cultural conversation after 20 years of toxic reality shows that helped — in part — elect a former reality show star to the U.S. presidency.
"A hundred percent," she says, without hesitation. "I think we want to create this content and tell these stories to kind of course-correct for some of the type of shows that have been done in the past."
At a moment when the tone of public discourse feels so lowered, Long says, maybe now is the time for reality television — yes, reality television — to push for civility and respect.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When you think of reality television, drama like this probably comes to mind...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I came here to be No. 1.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Coming up next, here on NBC...
KELLY: ...Screaming matches, hot tub hookups, contestants there to win, not to make friends. But recently, reality has taken a kinder, gentler turn. Take the new "Queer Eye" on Netflix, which started its fourth season with a public school teacher getting a makeover.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUEER EYE")
JONATHAN VAN NESS: And I really want to celebrate you. And I also want to celebrate that I'm going to be cutting your hair.
KELLY: NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on reality's new nice.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A lot of Netflix reality shows tend to be awfully sweet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW")
MARY BERRY: That's quite something. That is absolutely delicious.
ULABY: "The Great British Baking Show" was just one of many warm-hearted food programs on Netflix including "Sugar Rush," "Street Food" and "Nailed It," where contestants giggle over epic failures in decorating cakes. On the Netflix dating show "Dating Around," you'll see hardly any jerks. And on "Tidying Up With Marie Kondo," the Japanese organizing guru gently guides Americans into discarding stuff that doesn't spark joy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TIDYING UP WITH MARIE KONDO")
MARIE KONDO: Does this spark joy for you?
BRANDON RIEGG: We say spark joy now for everything.
ULABY: Brandon Riegg is the Netflix vice president in charge of unscripted series. He says the streaming site has more than a hundred reality shows, including some in the works, and many of them are based on people being kind to each other.
RIEGG: In the beginning, it wasn't an intentional strategy. When we decided to get into original unscripted programming, it really was a blank slate.
ULABY: So why not, he said, try something different? Namely - being nice.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NAILED IT")
JACQUES TORRES: You're so nice.
NICOLE BYER: Actually, both of you are so nice.
ULABY: Those are the hosts of "Nailed It." That show and "Queer Eye" were both so successful, Netflix decided to make positive reality programming central to its brand. Since Netflix does not release audience numbers, we don't exactly know what successful means. But Riegg says the trend of sweet-natured reality television has spread across the industry.
RIEGG: Everybody's noticing. Viewers are more drawn to that. There is an appetite for that.
ULABY: NBC may have helped start this trend years ago with "The Biggest Loser," along with ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which Riegg helped develop. Andy Dehnart runs the website Reality Blurred.
ANDY DEHNART: As a critic, as a fan of reality TV, I love it. It makes it a lot easier to watch, to write about and to just enjoy.
ULABY: Plus, Dehnart says, there's shows families can watch together. Of course there are still mean-spirited reality shows out there, including ones on Netflix. But generally, we may be seeking a break from people being rotten to each other, says Tara Long, who runs a number of reality shows including "Growing Up Hip Hop" and "Siesta Key."
TARA LONG: We actually have production meetings when we start and say we don't want fighting.
ULABY: A profound shift, Long says, from when reality relied on people flipping tables for drama. I asked Long if people like her who make reality television might be trying to change the cultural conversation after 20 years of toxic reality shows.
LONG: A hundred percent. I think we want to create this content and tell these stories to try to course-correct for some of the type of shows that have been done in the past.
ULABY: At a moment when the tone of public discourse feels so lowered, Long says, maybe it's time for reality television - yes, reality television - to lead a push toward civility and respect.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE NICE")
BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Be nice.
ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE NICE")
BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Be nice. Be nice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.