Reality TV recaps

The crew from Discovery's Gold Rush.

Against all odds, I’ve fallen in love with a reality TV show. Despite its rapacious land ethic, Discovery’s Gold Rush keeps me coming back for its loveable, hapless stars. However, Gold Rush makes me worry about American attention spans. The show treats its audience like chronic amnesiacs.

Before every commercial break, Gold Rush flashes a quick-cut edit of the next segment’s most dramatic scene. A bulldozer slides sideways down a dirt pile. A massive piece of gold-sifting machinery goes haywire. Crew members come to blows with the camera crew. Often, the tease exaggerates the moment’s importance in an attempt to keep the audience from switching channels.

Then, once the show returns from commercial, we get another quick-cut synopsis: one to two minutes summarizing everything that’s happened in the show to that point. And I do mean everything. These recaps cover not just that particular episode, not just the current season, but the entire series run. After nearly every break, the announcer repeats, “Up in the Klondike, two competing teams struggle to make a life out of gold mining.” It’s as if the producers think that Gold Rush’s rudimentary plot somehow got displaced in our pea brains by the Roto Rooter jingle or a glamour shot of Hardee’s latest greaseburger.

Of course, viewers haven’t forgotten what show they’re watching. The showmakers have other reasons for adopting this preview-commercial-recap model:

  • First, it stretches the tape, limiting the amount of new material needed for each episode. In a typical TV hour, commercials consume eighteen minutes’ time. That leaves forty-two minutes for actual program content. But by sandwiching each ad interruption with two minutes of repeated video, the show fills an additional twelve minutes (or more). That leaves less than half an hour for genuinely fresh content. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you stretch a few months of humdrum industrial work into an action-packed reality TV season.

  • A second reason for the constant recaps? It helps grow the audience. Not every viewer plops down at the top of the hour, then remains glued to your network for the episode’s duration. Many join the program mid-broadcast. By constantly rehashing the story thus far, producers help channel-flippers and late arrivers to tune in without feeling lost. They’re fishing for the inattentive and the restless; frequent recaps serve as bait. If the constant reminders also offend the faithful fan, that’s a downside far outweighed by the opportunity to nab new viewers.

So we know why shows constantly recap themselves. What are the consequences? Does reality TV bear responsibility for the American public’s dwindling attention span? When our media constantly rehashes the plotline, do we get lazy? Do we start depending on such recaps? Do we give up bothering to track the plot ourselves? Does it get harder to consume media that doesn’t spoon-feed us? Will novels start printing a plot synopsis at the start of each chapter?