I can honestly say that, until now, I'd never watched a full episode of reality television. In fact, I rarely got past the promotional commercials. Usually, I would simply shake my head and mutter something like, "Seriously?" Then I'd flip the channel to some show that makes no pretense about its fantasy you know, like "Fox News."
That all changed with "The Hustlers" (see page 28), the new reality show about action on the green baize in New York City's Steinway Billiards. I'm fascinated by this show. And it's not simply because I'm so vested in the sport. If I watched reality TV based on my passions, I'd never miss a cooking show or "Bar Makeover!"
Granted, I only got to see two episodes before this issue went to press, but "The Hustlers" has all the elements that would make a reality television show compelling to me: great characters, true skill, gamesmanship, real winners and losers, and conflict. (Bachelors have no skills, real housewives are all losers, there is no gamesmanship amongst idols, and cooking shows are more about the hosts than the characters.)
To me, pool has long been low-hanging fruit for reality television. Anyone who has ever been to an "action" room, or has hung around a professional tournament, knows that pool players require little coaxing and zero coaching when it comes to putting on a show. The art of making a game alone usually incorporates drama, conflict and biting humor. Add in the incredible skill top players display at the table, and the result is adrenaline-fueled entertainment. Just ask any railbird.
Of course, people close to the pool world (including players and promoters) have spent a decade trying to sell reality shows to various networks and producers. It's hard to find a top player (of the pro or action variety) who hasn't been involved, in some form or fashion, with a reality series pitch.
Not surprisingly, however, getting a network to bite on a reality concept is incredibly rare. Can you imagine how many "can't miss" projects get pitched to the networks that favor reality shows?
To a certain extent, I'm glad none of the previous efforts were successful. Nothing would ruin pool's reality TV "action" faster than a poorly thought-out, poorly produced first series.
Pool got lucky. "The Hustlers" has a great chance to succeed in no small part because of the production company that sold the concept to truTV. As one of the longest-running and most successful production companies in reality TV, Pilgrim Studios brings quality and legitimacy to pool's initial foray into the genre. Don't underestimate how important that is to "The Hustlers" chances of success. Pilgrim doesn't book many losers.
And what could a successful show mean to pool?
Make no mistake about it, if "The Hustlers" finds a following and becomes an ongoing series, the show has the potential to actually move the industry needle. That kind of success won't be measured by how many pool junkies watch "The Hustlers." Needle-moving success will be measured by how many people who rarely, if ever, play pool get hooked on the show. You simply cannot watch "The Hustlers" and not want to go play pool. You cannot watch "The Hustlers" and not want to trash-talk your friends at the table. Not many reality shows can have that kind of far-reaching impact. Did "Survivor" drive people to deserted islands? Does "Pawn Wars" drive people to garage sales? Do any of the "Real Housewives" incarnations make women want to do whatever it is "real" housewives do?
"The Hustlers" could certainly drive people to poolrooms. It could make people want to buy a cue. It could coax people into taking the laundry off of the pool table in the basement. And it could do all of this without compelling a single new player to spin his cue while blasting "Werewolves of London" on the jukebox.
What's more, a quality program that attracts new viewers could well lead other networks to develop copy-cat pool programming.
The potential is there. Is it "The Color of Money" potential? (How many times have you heard someone in the pool world say, "What pool needs is another 'Color of Money'?") Probably not. But 92 million subscribers (truTV's reach) is nothing to sneeze at.
The proof, of course, will be in the ratings. And there is nothing pool fans can do about that unless an inordinate number of them happen to live in Arbitron-equipped households. ("The Hustlers" is already bucking the odds by being relegated to the "Friday Night Death Slot".)
I'm hopeful. The success of reality TV shows is often linked as much to the characters as it is to the direction of the show. Do viewers love the characters? Are they compelling? Where is the show headed?
"The Hustlers" shines in those areas. Led by pro stars Jennifer Barretta and Mike Dechaine, the cast offers something for everyone. There are insecure characters, mouthy characters, egomaniacal characters, likeable characters, obnoxious characters and just plain characters!
"The Hustlers" offers pool a legitimate shot at reaching mainstream America and drawing attention to the game from outside our insulated little community.
Here's hoping Americans get hooked on our reality.