• Reality TV used to be more like watching a car crash in slow motion or focused on competition.
  • But after 2020, we need wholesome content like "The Great British Bake Off" or "Nailed It."
  • The genre seems to be heading in a less mean-spirited direction, and it's the best way forward.

When Insider spoke with Paula Abdul about her upcoming role on "The Masked Dancer," she was quick to point out that her official title was "panelist" — not judge.

"Instead of judging, we're celebrating. We're celebrating everyone having their time on the stage and making it their own," she said. "The coolest thing is the contestants are having the time of their lives. No matter who was revealed, they say it's the best experience they've ever had," she added.

That's a far cry from the reality TV of just a few years ago, which was fixated on judging, capturing people at their absolute lowest lows, producer-manufactured drama, and generally had a mean-spirited vibe.

You might think the reason reality TV became so popular is because people enjoy watching others get humiliated — how else can you account for the success of shows like "Jersey Shore"?

But, as Business Insider reported back in 2016, our reason for loving reality TV isn't humiliation. It's actually our capacity for empathy that makes reality television so popular.

Let's keep using "Jersey Shore" as an example. Sure, the show was popular for its first three episodes, but can you recall when it became a full-blown phenomenon? We'll give you a hint — it's when Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi got punched in the face at a bar, causing the entire cast (who wasn't quite fond of her yet) to rally around her and defend her. And that's what viewers responded to, the need to defend Snooki, and the familial love that the cast showed each other.

While the rest of the show did continue focusing on their train-wreck-esque existences, the only reason people really kept coming back was the love and support shown by the cast — and this was back in 2009.

Over a decade later, television has finally caught up with what people responded to all those years ago: empathy.

"The Great British Bake Off" ("GBBO") has been steadily rising to become one of the most beloved cooking shows of all time since its debut in 2010 (though it didn't become super popular in the US until it was added to Netflix in 2018).

What sets it apart from your other more high-stakes cooking shows like "Chopped," "Top Chef," and "Cutthroat Kitchen" are its genuinely lovely vibes. The contestants are polite to each other, there's no screaming or hair-pulling, the judges are nothing compared to how tough Americans can be, and viewers are always sucked in by the promise of low drama.

Similarly, "Nailed It," another Netflix cooking show, takes all the mean-spiritedness out of a show like "Worst Cooks in America," and instead focuses on the laughs. Vox called it "one of the sweetest, most supportive, silliest ways to entertain yourself and your family."

During a year like 2020, is it any wonder that people flocked to shows that made them feel better about the world and the people in it, instead of wallowing in drama and backstabbing? "GGBO" scored series-high ratings in the U.K. for its November 2020 finale, while "Nailed It" has spawned two holiday specials, multiple international versions, and three Emmy nominations. Its fourth season dropped in April 2020 to a resounding "thank god" from the internet.

Positivity has paid off for "The Masked Singer" too. As Abdul said, though they are competitions, "The Masked Singer" and "The Masked Dancer" don't have judges, only panelists. They're never rude about the contestants' lack of singing or dancing ability, and instead frequently praise them for having the courage to go up there and perform at all. It's, for lack of a better word, wholesome.

It was the highest-rated unscripted television series debut since 2011, and when its ratings increased by 30% after DVR, it had the highest increase ever for a premiere in reality TV history. Although ratings are down from season one, it's still the most popular show on TV when it airs.

One more instance? The last two seasons of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette." When season 24 of "The Bachelor" wrapped up in March, viewers needed a break, even if they didn't realize it. Both the lead and the contestants were petty, immature, and very obviously not ready for a real relationship — and it wasn't even compelling television. It was just frustrating.

So, when "The Bachelorette" returned in October, after one of the longest and hardest years in recent history, people were pleasantly surprised when the show delivered not one, but two love stories (though one has already fallen apart), some of the most mature and appealing contestants in "Bachelor" history, and a legitimately moving proposal at the end. The Washington Post even called it "one of the best TV scenes of the year."

With the way things are going this season of "The Bachelor," it didn't seem like the producers actually listened to what people appreciated about Clare and Tayshia's season of "The Bachelorette": the authenticity of the contestants, their relationships, their willingness to speak out about real issues, their maturity, and the low amount of drama. Perhaps that's why the show is currently getting series-low ratings.

With 2021 already shaping up to be potentially just as terrifying as 2020, perhaps it's time to keep pushing the genre towards positivity. Although the famous quote goes, "I'm not here to make friends," the reality shows that have risen to the top of the pack suggest that that's not the case anymore.

This article was written by insider@insider.com (Gabbi Shaw) from Business Insider and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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