Economist Austan Goolsbee had a column in the NY Times last week looking at the economic rationale for why reality TV programming has become so popular these days
. It goes well beyond the simple answer that it's cheap to produce. As Goolsbee notes, if that were the case, it would have caught on much earlier. Instead, the argument is that with the rise of satellite and cable TV adding many more options for people's viewing time (and you could argue plenty of other entertainment options as well), the pool from which network TV operators can expect to get viewers is shrinking, forcing them to search out cheaper programming.
However, a separate NY Times article may offer another potential reason (whether on purpose or not). It looks at a new study of what programs people record on DVRs and finds that people are less likely to record "timely" programs on their DVRs
, preferring to watch them live. This includes the obvious things like news and sports -- but also reality TV programming. That's because who gets kicked off American Idol is likely to be talked about the next morning at work, and people want to make sure they've seen the latest so they can talk about it. That creates fewer incentives to record the program and watch it later. So, whether or not TV programming execs recognize it, reality TV programming may actually get more people watching, rather than skipping, commercials.