As the reality-drama genre has steadily taken over TV programming during the last 20 or so years, it's striking how consistent the generational background of the characters has remained — mostly Gen X, particularly the ground zero ones born in the late '60s and early '70s.
The first reality show phenomenon was The Real World on MTV in the mid-1990s. The cast were younger 20-somethings, with the occasional late teenager. It had already lost relevance among youth audiences — its only target audience — by the turn of the millennium. It has long featured stock character stereotypes for the benefit of the autistic youth audience made up more and more of Millennials. The last time there were memorable and distinct individuals was probably the 1995 season in London, when middle X-ers were the cast and late X-ers were the audience.
Big Brother in the early part of the last decade picked up where The Real World left off, only with a now older age group on camera — still late Boomers and X-ers, though.
There's also been a string of "celebreality" shows that followed the lives of famous people who ranged from early Boomers like Ozzy Osbourne up through late X-ers like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
Now the hot thing seems to be housewives, husbands, moms, dads, and other folks in their 30s and 40s. This genre was completely absent during the '90s and even the first half of the 2000s. Boomer parents in the '90s apparently were not thought to be worth the gamble to put on camera. Only when the early X-ers had kids old enough to be active in the background did this genre take off, during the past 5 to 10 years.
Why haven't the Millennials taken the place of the X-ers once the latter had outgrown a given niche? They've been old enough to star on The Real World for at least five years now, but they haven't turned it back into a thing. Nor have they simply made a related but different show a thing. Well, who would want to tune in to awkward brats diddling their digital devices for 60 minutes?
Some of the early Millennials are now also old enough for Big Brother type shows, though again imagine how boring it would be to watch them sulk around, mumble less than ten words per day, and surf the web on their phone.
Ditto for celebreality shows — Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were 23 when their show The Simple Life became a hit. Early Millennial celebrities have been that age since 2010, yet none of them have spawned hit shows that document their lives.
Sure, they're not old enough to star on shows about housewives raising a family with school-age children. But how did it even get to this point, where housewives and middle-aged husbands are more interesting to watch than college students? It was the other way around in 1992, when The Real World debuted.
For whatever it's worth, Gen X has the qualities that are needed to make watchable TV dramas taken from real-life people: they are sociable like the Boomers, but self-monitoring like the Millennials. Gregarious enough to get involved in other people's lives, and introspective enough to reflect on what the right thing to be doing is.
A Boomer cast would be up to a lot of activity, but there would be little self-awareness among them, hence no internal conflict, just one glib rationalization after another in the confessional. A Millennial cast would be paralyzed by their constant self-monitoring, and would not have much in the way of choices to examine in any case, since they keep to themselves all the time. No actions means no consequences of your actions to reflect on.
This generational influence extends further to that whole adrenaline junkie genre that began with Jackass and continued through Survivor and Fear Factor. Millennials are too fearful and too crippled by OCD to go anywhere near that kind of thing. Their mindset about where the proper boundaries are was shaped by the helicopter parenting culture of the past 20-odd years — not just in the home, but anywhere that their parents held influence (playgrounds, pools, schools). Their idea of livin' on the edge is playing their video games without automatic health regeneration.
The Gen X guys from Jackass etc. grew up when you not only didn't have to ask permission from your parents to leave the house, but you typically didn't even make a point of leaving a note to let them know. You were just "going out," and if they noticed you weren't home, they assumed you had "gone out" and would "be back." Pretty simple, really.
Of course I'm not holding up any of these reality show casts as paragons of personality. But they do reflect differences in the general public that might be otherwise hard to put your finger on. "Come to think of it, who would want to watch a reality show about Millennial phone-fondlers or Boomer blindness?" Reality TV may be near the bottom of the barrel, but think of how much worse it could get if the characters weren't at least somewhat gregarious and somewhat introspective.