Trash TV is a whole genre, right up there with serious drama, crime thrillers, and game shows. You either love it or you hate it, and both of those are good for marketing.
It’s no secret that strong emotions are great for business, regardless of what those emotions actually are. Joy and anger alike mean that some attention being given to the product, service, or company.
I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. This is a researched, well-verified fact in the world of business, and that same principle can be applied to a lot of things in life. And today, we are going to apply that to trash TV.
In this article, I’m going to talk about what trash TV is, how it makes so much money, and what you can learn from it.
What is Trash TV?
Beauty – and trash – is in the eye of the beholder. But for the sake of this article, we are going to focus on reality dating shows (Love is Blind, The Bachelor, etc.) which are, in my eyes, the pinnacle of trash TV. If you absolutely adore reality dating shows and think that true lasting love can be found while surrounded by a television crew…then I am so happy for you, and you should probably stop reading now. As for me, I have yet to find a show that puts the contestants before the
So why do TV networks continue to make these reality dating shows if even they know the relationships will crash and burn 3 months after the cameras leave? Because people still watch the shows.
And why do people watch them? Escapism. I know that’s why I watch, at least. Life is too serious and hard, so sometimes if I watch some trash TV that isn’t going to actually improve my life, then sometimes that’s what I need. For about an hour, I can put my own drama and life concerns on hold while I watch other people have crisis after crisis, many of which are of their own making.
To put it bluntly, I feel better about my own life when I see the ridiculous hell people sign up for in the name of reality television. Because if I’m having a bad day, at least it isn’t that bad.
Networks churn out these shows nonstop. And yes, seeing one kind of is like seeing them all. But here’s the thing – reality TV is dirt cheap to produce. You don’t even have to hire actors, just hire contestants looking to go viral.
Making Our Own Trash TV Show: Heart in the Boneyard
To understand the economics of trash TV, let’s make a fake one of our own: Heart in the Boneyard, brought to you by the fake streaming service FELIX.
Sally Price signs up for the newest FELIX reality show – Heart in the Boneyard. It’s a pretty standard dating show comprised of 15 women and 15 men. Approximately half of the total contestant pool are accustomed to a certain…quality of lifestyle. The other half are salt-of-the-earth southerners who aren’t afraid of a little pig manure.
The 30 contestants live in a luxury resort in Texas. Contestants have to complete tasks that are representative of both lifestyles but that also pair couples together. Producers also play up well-known narrative tropes such as love triangles and rags to riches.
Trash TV Uses Tropes & Cliches to Simplify Storytelling
The trick to reality shows is that most people will get shoehorned into a role, such as:
- Skill player out to win the game
- Most beautiful woman, batting away all the male contestants
- Dumb but loveable bro
- The “other woman” in the love triangle
- Vindictive villain
- Sweet one
- Funny one
At this point, we have the rules of the game and contestants are thinking about which role they want to fit into. The producers choose how they’re going to portray each person in the show. Meanwhile, contestants spend a good deal of their time on TV thinking about the following job opportunities at the end of the show:
- Winners become part of the show family and can be brought on for future seasons or affiliate network shows.
- Runners up are also part of the show family and can be called in much the same way as winners.
- Social media influencers or podcasters use their initial fame to build a brand, gain hundreds of thousands of followers, secure brand deals, and earn paid speaking engagements.
- Entertainment show hosts use their fame to work their way up into the network, eventually getting to host red-carpet events, talk shows, and secure other jobs in the TV business.
Can contestants on a reality show join strictly because they believe in the cause of the show? Absolutely. But at this point, it works a lot like wrestling – nobody believes reality TV is real, but everybody acts like it anyway.
The Economics of Trash TV: The ROI of Reality Shows
So how much do these reality shows cost to make? And how much profit do they rake in?
Budgets vary drastically between various reality dating shows. Even different seasons can have wildly different budgets. For example, Season 2 of Love is Blind has a much higher production value than Season 1 because it was such a huge hit that Netflix knew they could invest in future seasons.
Let’s just talk generic figures, though. Consider our fictitious show, Heart in the Boneyard. Costs include:
- Paying for the resort
- Food and beverages for contestants, including alcohol
- Items and props needed for tasks and competitions
- Salary and equipment for the crew (lighting, booms, cameras, lodging expenses, etc.)
- Marketing expenses, such as promotional materials
What’s missing? The actual price for the contestants. They don’t get paid to be there. In fact, many of them have to quit or take some sort of leave from their jobs.
According to Investopedia, reality shows can cost anywhere in the range of $100,000 to $500,000 per episode when all is said and done. But before your eyes shoot out of your head, the budget for The Last of Us is $10 million per episode. Producing Season 1 of that show cost about $100 million. That’s more than the entire budget for the first Sex and the City movie ($65 million).
Considering a feature film was $65 million to produce, and a scripted television show is $10 million per episode, networks getting away with $100,000 – $500,000 per episode is a steal.
High Return on Investment
Starting a Trash TV show doesn’t cost much. But the revenue generation options do not suffer as a result. Below are just a few of the potential revenue generators reality showrunners can employ.
- Viewership/subscriptions: Trash TV, just like “good” TV, generates ad revenue and streaming service subscriptions.
- Product placement: Trash TV creates tons of opportunities for product placement because of how “real” the setting is.
- Merchandise: The Bachelor is as capable of creating merch as Star Wars or the MCU.
And that’s not even getting into cross-promotions, sponsorships, or spin-offs!
How Trash TV Works In The Real World
Talking about a fictional Trash TV show is a good place to start, but if you’re like me, you’ll want some real-life examples. Believe me – there’s no shortage. I had to narrow down the list a lot!
Exhibit A: The Bachelor & The Bachelorette
The twin Trash TV shows, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have been around forever. In their tenure, they’ve built up a huge fan base – Bachelor Nation.
Originally, the franchise started as The Bachelor. Now there are 27 seasons of The Bachelor, 19 seasons of The Bachelorette, and a ton of other spin-off shows.
These days, Bachelor Nation consists of:
- The Bachelor
- The Bachelorette
- Bachelor in Paradise
- Bachelor in Paradise: After Paradise
- The Bachelor Winter Games
- The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart
- The Bachelor Summer Games
- The Bachelorette Canada
For a show that has been on the air for almost 21 years, it is hard to give an average number of views. But let’s just say they see at least 2 million viewers per episode and have had as many as 18 million viewers. Either way, that’s a lot of viewers.
There are a plethora of Bachelor-related podcasts, magazine spreads, and red carpet appearances. Nearly all of the contestants gain thousands of followers on their social media accounts, with many becoming highly profitable influencers.
The Bachelor Nation brand is so strong that even imitating it has a lot of power. For example, Instagram influencer Dani Austin invoked the show’s tropes when trying to find love for her brother, Landon. It only served to further her fame, and she’s now a big enough deal to be profiled by Forbes. It’s speculated that she made $8 million in one year.
Starring on The Bachelor is a Career Decision
Contestants practically sign their life away when they enter these shows. When contestants sign up for The Bachelor, their public presence is straight-up owned by ABC (which is, in turn, owned by Disney). Fan favorites are tossed onto affiliate shows like Dancing with the Stars. They have to attend network parties. They have to live within the guidelines of the Bachelor Nation brand. Like being a politician, there are serious consequences for stepping out of line.
What if a Bachelor alumnus goes on to find a successful relationship? You can bet that positive words will be said about Bachelor Nation even if they had zero to do with the successful nuptials.
Baby on board? It’s a “Bachelor Baby!”
Exhibit B: Love is Blind
It’s like Netflix was just sitting on this show, waiting for a time the entire world would be shut down. Because while everyone was stuck at home and singles were trying to figure out how to keep dating, Netflix dropped Love is Blind. A show where contestants “date” one another but do so sight unseen.
Female contestants are each in their own “pod”, and on the other side of the wall is another pod where a man enters and the date commences. The show is supposed to be determining if meaningful relationships can be formed based purely on an emotional connection. In order to continue on in the game, by the end of 10 days, contestants must propose marriage and be accepted.
They then meet for the first time face to face, while being engaged, and spend the next four weeks planning a wedding, living together, meeting families and friends, and generally relearning what life is like with this person you met without a physical connection.
The show caught on like wildfire. Because it was relatable. People dating online were having to resort to webcam dates and in-app messaging. So here we were watching other people living that same reality but with higher stakes. It was a relatable but fun way to engage in television.
Personally, I was excited to watch the show because it was marketed as a science experiment. I thought that was going to be cool. It’s definitely less of a science experiment and more of Trash TV, but I ended up not caring because the contestants the producers selected to be the “main cast” all pulled some form of emotional response from me.
Love Is Blind: After The Altar
When watching the first two seasons of Love Is Blind, I found myself either loving or hating the contestants. Sometimes I’d end up shouting at the TV telling them how dumb they were being. And, of course, that kept me binging the show. Then, after I finished watching the show, I looked for more information online to research what happened to couples after the camera crews left.
And you know what? There was so much interest in “what happened later” that Netflix has since added multiple episodes of After The Altar to answer that question, putting money back in Netflix’s pocket.
How has this continued to generate income and intrigue? Well, contestants have gone on to build careers out of their fame. They’ve starred in other Netflix reality shows. Many have made appearances on a red carpet or wound up as talk show spokespeople. Others secured paid podcast opportunities. All of which creates this twisted symbiotic relationship where the contestants keep Love Is Blind relevant far after its initial release.
Exhibit C: Too Hot to Handle
This is the greatest work of Trash TV I have ever seen.
Too Hot to Handle definitely doesn’t beat around the bush with its premise. A bunch of ridiculously attractive serial daters/hook-uppers are thrown onto an island and told to refrain from my form of sexual pleasure of any kind. If they succeed, someone walks away with a whole lot of money. Yup, it gets straight to the point, doesn’t it?
What makes this show one of my favorites, however, is how it doesn’t pretend to be much more than it is. The show isn’t selling forever love and romance. It isn’t even technically about couples. In fact, it is supposed to be about the lack of coupling!
Various “experts” are brought in to teach the contestants about respecting themselves, understanding the meaning of love, and overall trying to help these people be a more well-rounded version of themselves.
Do people hook up? Of course.
Are there love triangles? Naturally.
Is there a chance these contestants will return to their wily ways after the conclusion of the show? Certainly!
But the show never promised to fix the individuals or craft true love. It is exactly what it said it would be. Nothing more and nothing less.
Oh, another funny thing about the show? The contestants definitely thought they were signing up for a wild party show and not a show promoting celibacy. So that’s actually pretty funny.
Like with Love is Blind, contestants from this show have gone on to participate in other reality shows. In fact, because Netflix owns both Love is Blind and Too Hot to Handle, they started another show called Perfect Match that stars many fan favorites from the other shows that didn’t “win” their season. But in that case, did they really even lose?
What Can Trash TV Teach Us? (More Than You’d Think)
“How can anyone possibly learn anything from Trash TV?”
You can learn a lot, actually. For one, position your business in a way that creates an emotional response. Indifference is the enemy. If someone is talking about your company, they care enough to talk about it. Most PR is good PR.
As long as you have the good sense to avoid scandals or shady business, getting blasted online isn’t a big deal. Lack of engagement or interest kills businesses. If someone trash talks you, then they care enough to talk about you in the first place.
Working hard and just starting your career? Remember how important it is to network. Always leave a lasting impression and have a business card ready at all times. You never know when you’ll meet someone who can advance your career, or vice versa.
Even if you are new to the working world, you might be in a position to help someone and they will owe you a favor. Reality stars join shows without making a single dime, simply because they know it’s going to open up connections with networks, industry professionals, and even directly with viewers.
So go make connections. Take chances. Turn bad PR into good.
And remember – if you’re having a bad day, it could be worse. You could be on Too Hot To Handle.