Will you accept this Rose NFT? Reality TV & Web3 (Mad Realities)
A brief history of Reality TV and a modest proposal for the future of pseudo-real entertainment.
I have a confession to make:
I, Alex Stein, a 31 year old male of (relatively) sound mind like reality TV.
This is new for me. I always approached reality TV with a sense of smug superiority.” But in hindsight, I should have seen the signs. I loved documentaries. And what are documentaries, but Reality TV with a superiority complex?
My gateway drug was The Circle. I then binged Love is Blind in a crazy weekend I scarcely remember. But finally, I’ve found my favorite drug – The Bachelor(ette).
It's finale week on the Bachelorette. That means the two (there are 2 this season!) Bachelorettes will choose their theoretical husband this week.
So, in honor of the Final Rose, let's take a look at the emerging intersection of Reality TV and Crypto. Because, honestly, why celebrate one insufferable subculture when you can celebrate two?
The premise of reality TV is brilliant. Put attractive people in a situation with total strangers. Mix in alcohol. Cultivate base urges – sex, greed, competition, fame. Film it for six weeks. Profit.
It’s the hyper unethical and hyper-fascinating psychology experiment that no IRB would ever allow.
But for those willing to mix-it-up in the grey spaces of morality, there's money to be made.
The Bachelor made ABC $86M in advertising revenue in 2017.
The eponymous Bachelor-star makes ~$100,000.
Contestants make nothing.
Now that's what I call a platform take-rate.
So what draws the contestants? Is it true love? Well, even if they are the lucky winner from a pool of 30 contestants, that's unlikely. Only 21% of "final rose" couples are still together.
Instead - it's the promise of a second-life as a Social Media influencer. A recent BBC Podcast referred to England’s top show, Love Island, as “an influencer sausage factory.” And for good reason. Just getting onto the show earns you, on average, 4,400 new followers on Instagram. But if you can survive the mating rituals, you get handsomely rewarded. Finalists add as many as 1 million new followers in a season. Once they hit that tier, they can earn ~5 to $10,000 for a single promoted post on Instagram.
Not a bad gig.
But fame has its costs. Contestants are isolated from friends and family. They are pinned against the very people who can relate to their struggle in order to win love. Once in this state, they are manipulated by enterprising producers to maximize drama. Their stories are then put out for the whole world to judge.
Is it any surprise that contestants report struggling with mental health after the show?
Theirs is a true Faustian bargain.
But also - ironically - a perfect environment for Web3 to disrupt. What, after all, are our Reality TV stars but influencers on a predatory platform? If we're going to change a system, it helps to understand where it came from.
So, friends, put your Bachelor Brackets away, because it's time to explore the First Seasons of the Reality TV genre.
American Family and Candid Camera: The Twin Spirits of Reality TV
The first thing to know about Reality TV is that it didn't start on TV. It started on radio.
In 1947, Allen Funt’s Candid Microphone debuted on ABC Radio. The show’s premise was simple. Funt would pull a practical joke on an unsuspecting person. He would then record the joke from a hidden microphone.
In 1948, Funt ported the genre to TV with Candid Camera. An early episode shows Funt fighting with customers who want to return hats at a department store. It's not exactly entertaining by our standards. But you can see the roots of the genre.
Funt understood that chronicling real people in real circumstances was entertainment gold. He advertised the show as depicting real people in real situations. Except, he also understood, that reality is boring. To make it entertaining, you need to manipulate the circumstances. You need to place people in a scene contrived for entertainment.
If you want to understand why Reality TV works, you just need to watch Funt perform a reveal. As soon as he explains that someone is on the show, their demeanor changes. They are no longer annoyed. They are about to be famous. Funt understood he could use the lure of “being on TV” to manipulate and profit off of everyday people.
One of reality TV’s guiding lights had been lit.
But if it were pure manipulation, we likely would have lost interest by now. Instead, there's a more interesting, more human light that also guides reality TV.
For that, we can thank the US Government. Yes, really.
In 1973, PBS created the first great serial reality TV show. It was called An American Family. Its Producer, Craig Gilbert, was at a low point in his life. As explained in the Washington Post, Gilbert was drinking, out of work and fighting with his wife. The glistening family life he was promised felt out of reach. He wanted to understand why his hopes had been so badly miscalibrated.
Like many social commentators -- Gilbert came to blame television. From Leave it to Beaver to the Brady Bunch network TV was filled with happy American families. But these families were nothing like the ones Gilbert knew.
No, the American family that Gilbert knew was complicated. They fought. They disappointed each other. They had secrets. Gilbert thought that those families would make for compelling drama. They might also end the bullshit sitcom family for good.
Except here's the thing. Network TV was advertiser supported. And advertisers wanted happy families. So Gilbert needed a network with different economics. Launched in 1969, PBS was supported by taxpayers. They did not need to please advertisers. So they were open to experimentation.
Gilbert lured viewers in by promising a real-life portrayal of an upper middle class family in Southern California, the Louds. At first glance, it looked like a real world sitcom. It was a chance to celebrate the American family as it truly was -- in all its California-tinted-glory.
The Louds were a regular family. Gilbert did not know much about them. He was just confident that, as Tolstoy wrote, every unhappy family would be unhappy in its own way.
He was not disappointed. Gilbert did not intervene. He did not provoke. He just recorded.
Over the course of six episodes, Gilbert chronicled the Louds' marriage fall apart. He captured their son, Lance, coming out of the closet– a scandalous prospect in 1970s America.
Gilbert realized his vision. By depicting a fun-house version of the American sitcom family, he had revealed the truth about American families.
Reviewers hated the show. They thought the family was shallow and problematic.
But Americans couldn’t get enough. They told Gilbert how happy they were to see real people reflected on TV.
Americans connected to the drama, yes, but also the authenticity. They understood what Reality TV can do at its best -- connect us to real people and expose the shadow-selves that make us whole. Even if Hollywood producers doubt we're ready to see it.
It is a powerful idea. It is a powerful art form. It makes us feel by showing us that others feel, too.
The core tension facing the industry today is whether it is possible for reality to compete with manipulated drama. Is there a way to
capture what we love about the genre – the relatability of real humans, the psychological drama of life -- without exploiting the stars?
Web3 Twitter thinkbois talk a lot about Web3 being a potential solution for creator liberation. What if it could also liberate America’s Greatest Natural Resource – our Reality TV stars?
The Medium is the Message
Let’s channel our inner- Marshall McLuhan for a moment. The famed media theorist is best known for his adage, “The Medium is the Message.”
McLuhan believed that the medium of a story (film, music or tweet) is as essential to what is communicated as the content of the communication.
Movies, McLuhan wrote, play with our concept of time and space. They allow us to experience narratives from multiple perspectives. TV News was less about an actual news event than the broader narrative and reactions that anchors would extrapolate from it.
In each case, the medium determines how much of the "truth" we get to see. So we should start by considering what would make the medium of web3 reality TV different.
Stream from anywhere. Before there was Twitch, there was Justin.tv. Twitch founder Justin Kan livestreamed his entire life (24/7 - minus bathroom breaks) for 8 months. Though the novelty eventually wore off, Justin captured an important nuance of the medium. It can follow you anywhere.
Cross-Platform. The best part of the Bachelor is the fan live-tweeting that accompanies it. Today's media moments are cross-platform. Web3 -- with its open-content and open-accounts -- should extend this. It's not just Reality TV. It's reality everywhere: Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube.
Interactivity. The internet enables a bi-directional parasocial relationship between audience and star. American Idol was revolutionary in allowing the audience to vote for winners. But we can push this much further. We can allow a community to influence and shape the narratives of a show. They can craft crafting proposals for new plot points and vote on them. They can choose the cast. They can ask questions of the stars. It's Reality TV as cooperative production.
Literal investment. Of course, what’s a web3 product without a way to profit? Fantasy Sports are a proven accelerator for fan engagement. Bachelor Brackets have long been a thing. Web3 should let the audience invest. They can invest alongside Sharks on Shark Tank. They can crowdfund a Voice contestant's record contract. Hell, they can even sponsor the dating show itself.
But these ideas are not just abstractions. They are very much starting to show up in the space.
Mad Realities and the First Rose NFT
I’ve been following one such project, Mad Realities, for a while now. Mad Realities launched its first show, Proof of Love, in February this year.
At first glance, the show is a simple update of the Dating Game. A single bachelor or bachelorette chooses among three contestants to go out on a date. But the simple premise conceals the ✨ Web3 Magic ✨ that makes Proof of Love different. The show was crowdfunded through the sale of 172ETH ($500,000 at the time of launch) worth of animated rose NFTs.
The roses entitled community members to co-produce the show. The community votes on cast-members. A special 1/1 producer NFT entitles the bearer to sponsorship rights, a producer credit and final cut on casting.
The show itself is, in typical Gen-Z fashion, a self-aware meme. To watch an episode is to see a show in-progress. No, it's not as entertaining as network reality TV. It's a hacky prototype. But that's okay, because what Mad Realities is flirting with is a bigger idea.
Earlier this year, they raised $6M from heavy hitters like Paradigm, Packy McCormick and Paris Hilton, (the Big 3 P’s as I now call them). That funding is being used to launch a slate of new experiments this Fall. The platform's goal is to productize a tool that enables anyone to launch NFT-based, community-driven Web3 Reality Shows.
Imagine giving every College, every fandom, every subculture, the tools to build their own Reality TV show. That's authenticity at scale.
It makes me want to produce my own shows. So, for no reason at all, I give you my Request for Reality TV Top 5:
Shark Tank DAO - Each week, contestants pitch their business to an investment DAO. The DAO appoints a representative who negotiates deals live on-screen with the business. The DAO votes to approve or reject each investment deal.
The Fix Up - We put twelve singles in a house that’s live streamed to compete for the love of one Bachelor(ette). Each day, the DAO members choose which contestants get to go on dates. After each round, the DAO votes to eliminate one contestant/bachelorette. It’s the Bachelor, but the Community picks your soulmate. You can ask the community for who you want, but if the DAO knows better, you have to trust the Wisdom of the Crowds.
SoundStar - Members of the DAO source new musical artists on Soundcloud. Each week, the contestants drop a new track and the DAO votes on who they want to sign (/continue paying to produce music for). The lowest vote getter is cut. The winner has their production paid for by the DAO (in exchange for the DAO taking a share of royalties on the music NFT).
DAO for You - Like Nathan for You, but crypto. The DAO identifies a struggling local business. Members vote on a proposal to help that business, and an investment to make if the business agrees to their (maybe ridiculous) proposal. Livestream. Profit.
Pump and Dump. At the beginning of the project, seven NFT communities release their token and their pitch. Each week, the one with the lowest token price gets eliminated. You either pump, or you get dumped.
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