At the turn of the millennium, scripted broadcast television was still the dominant daily force in American culture. The audience fracturing and niche content of the streaming age were still decades away. Prestigious cable shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City usually get all the credit for setting up that shift. But as the Emmys prepare to crown their 17th reality competition winner—with The Amazing Race once again a contender—a look back to the summer of 1999 shows the birth of another revolution, one the Television Academy spent years figuring out how to acknowledge without terrifying the writers, directors, and scripted TV crafts people who saw the genre as an existential threat.
With network prime-time real estate limited, comedies and dramas were genuinely squeezed by the proliferation of unscripted shows, which were cheap to produce and handy to have in the event of a writers strike. “The networks only have so much time and resources,” Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose Gilmore Girls was then in its third season, told Time in 2003. “Rather than solely focusing on convincing the Olsen twins to allow themselves to be eaten by bears in prime time, I wish they would focus on coming up with something that would really last.”
The future, it turned out, would be far more complicated than a pitched battle between quality television and the schlocky reality shows trying to replace them. This year Sherman-Palladino is once again Emmy-nominated for a series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, that airs alongside reruns of Hell’s Kitchen and Toddlers & Tiaras on Amazon. Try explaining that to anyone in 2001.
“Obviously Millionaire did extremely well,” says Andy Dehnart, creator and editor of Reality Blurred, which has been at the forefront of covering reality TV since 2000. “A game show format like this one upped the stakes and changed things around, [but] it wasn’t narrative. It wasn’t character-driven. And that’s what Survivor really changed the game with in the year 2000: turning real people into a soap opera that lasted for the entire summer.”
At its most mainstream apex, Survivor wasn’t simply watercooler TV, like Seinfeld and ER before it. It was an opportunity for viewers to play armchair strategist alongside (or more likely opposed to) villains like Richard Hatch. This kind of active viewer engagement coincided perfectly with the rise of internet message boards and recap culture, building an industry of TV obsession that continues today.
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