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Despite the criticism that accompanies Nielsen ratings, it’s difficult to ignore the power of numbers. Between March 22 and 28 of this year, four reality television shows were among the top 20 prime time programs of the week. Almost 17 million households had their televisions tuned to “American Idol.” That’s 17 million people who willfully watched the No. 1 show in American while being blinded by Ryan Seacrest’s unnaturally white teeth.

Even though there are only four reality shows in the Nielsen top 20, the total number is much higher. Among the six broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The WB and UPN), there is at least one reality show on during the prime time hours (between 7 and 11 p.m.). They are usually entertaining but often lack substance, with anywhere from four episodes to a full season order of 22. The reality trend has become a mainstay in TV land; even the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honors reality shows at the Emmy Awards.

There is no clear top dog among the more than 70 reality shows listed at the Web site Yahoo!TV, but given the number of seasons aired, “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” are among the best. But which shows are the ones to watch and which should you ignore?

Monday

When NBC aired the first season of “Average Joe” (9 p.m.) in November it was the network’s attempt to maintain an audience despite the popularity of “Monday Night Football” on ABC. The gimmick of a bunch of geeky, “average” men competing for the heart of a hot woman worked. A second season aired this winter, and this Monday night marks the finale of “Average Joe: Adam returns” – the most recent incarnation in which the runner-up from the first season gets his shot with the ladies.

Tuesday

Lately I have found myself watching reruns of old game shows on GSN (thank you, Comcast), and I think I found the equation for why “American Idol” (8 p.m., FOX) is so popular. It’s one part “The Gong Show,” one part “Match Game,” one part “Family Feud” and one part “Hollywood Squares.” Where else on television can you watch pop star hopefuls make fools of themselves in the early rounds (? la “The Gong Show”) and then get ridiculed by a panel of character judges (? la “Match Game”)? Throw in audience polling (“Family Feud”) and 15 minutes of fame (hello, center square on “Hollywood Squares”) and you have a hit reality show / talent competition.

Wednesday

The nine o’clock hour on Wednesday is one of the most TiVo-worthy hours of television. It’s “The West Wing” vs. “The O.C.” vs. “The Bachelor” – all signature shows for each of their respective networks. With the second season of “The Bachelorette” ending just over a month ago, the next “Bachelor” is being introduced this Wednesday (ABC, 9 p.m.). It’s another nine-week advertisement for a way too expensive engagement ring that has a high probability of ending up on eBay. It’s better to stick to “The O.C.” and tape “The West Wing,” both of which are just as from reality as “The Bachelor,” but with better plots.

Thursday

Thursday night has always been one of the best evenings of television, thanks to the NBC programmer who first thought of “Must See TV.” For the past 10 years, it’s been the goal of other networks to pluck the feathers off the Peacock. Lately, CBS has had the most success. While “Survivor: All Stars” (8 p.m.) is lacking some of the drama from previous seasons, perhaps because contestants play the game too well, it still is quality television. It’s a worthy successor to the 8 p.m. slot, with “Friends” ending its run on May 6.

However, NBC already has another hit with “The Apprentice (9 p.m.).” I’ll admit that I was slow to catch on to The Donald phenomenon. But with only three more episodes left, I find myself – along with 15.8 million other viewers – enthralled by the business practices of VersaCorp and Prot?g?. Who will get fired? I don’t care, because this week Omarosa is back.

The rest of the week’s reality fare is weak. “Forever Eden” is being buried in FOX’s death slot of Fridays at 9 p.m. Networks often ignore their Saturday schedules altogether, so take a night off and party. And, as the advertisements say, “Sunday is … HBO;” stick with “The Sopranos” by spending some quality time with the country’s favorite mob family and its sometimes scary reality.

Reality shows are not overrunning the networks yet, but be prepared for the new crop series to begin in the next few months. Just like GW’s scratched trimester proposal, TV networks are adjusting their schedules to offer new shows year-round. While there isn’t a lack of creativity in Hollywood, there certainly is a large amount of laziness. Just don’t become a couch potato yourself by giving in to the networks’ sloth-like ways.

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