The term was coined by Steve Beverly, a professor at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, an expert on game shows, and a webmaster of a site devoted to games. The phrase itself is a portmanteau of "game show" and "soap opera". Beverly intended this as a derogatory term, criticizing the nature and structure of these programs.
There are two types of game operas:
- The talent show, where contestants are chosen on their merits after an audition period. Examples include American Idol, Last Comic Standing, and America's Got Talent.
- Shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Apprentice, where the game is incidental to other elements of reality TV. On these shows, contestants are often picked because of personality traits that producers hope eventually lead to conflict among their ranks. (In an interesting sidelight, it was revealed on TVGameShows.net in July 2006 that Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS Corporation, had personally approved every contestant that appears on Survivor and The Amazing Race, and even picked some of the contestants himself.)
The following shows are not included in this genre:
- Non-competitive reality television shows, such as The Real World, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Hogan Knows Best.
- Prime time game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Deal or No Deal, which are also called reality shows by some critics.
- Stunt shows like Fear Factor.
Despite the distinctions, game operas work from a common template. A set number of contestants begin the contest. As play continues, they are eliminated, most often one at a time. Eventually, only one winner emerges to gain the cash prize, which is as much as $1 million.
Big Brother is believed to be the oldest game opera; it premiered on Dutch television in 1999 and was a ratings hit. Producer John De Mol licensed the product to other countries, including the United States. Survivor, which descended from a Swedish show, was the first game opera hit in the U.S. when it premiered in the summer of 2000.
After Survivor's success, the subgenre took off as almost every major broadcast and cable network in the United States and other countries sought similar programs. Even a professional football league, the XFL, used elements of game operas and reality TV.
The future of these shows was put in some question after the attacks on America in 2001, but the genre survived the immediate aftermath and now is as popular as ever. In fact, American Idol was the highest-rated show on all of American television in 2004–05 and 2005–06.
Game operas are often derided for several reasons:
- Often the contestants are reduced from their human complexity to a simple character, like those on scripted series. In some cases, they are portrayed as saying or doing something different from what actually happened, in an attempt to play up certain elements of the show.
- Producers often tap into the worst elements of the participants, a concept also known as schadenfreude. Examples include the rivalries and insults on Survivor and The Amazing Race, and the insulting comments of judge Simon Cowell on American Idol.
- Some of the prizes to be won on game operas do not appear to be suitable. Perhaps the worst example of this is The Bachelor, from which only one winning couple (Ryan and Trista Sutter) has had a lasting marriage.
- Similarly, the advertised grand prizes can be devalued by rules changes or circumstances. For example, after American Idol season 2, both champion Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken were given recording contracts. After Aiken proved to be the better-selling artist, other "losers" from future seasons were given contracts. Most of them, but not all, signed with Sony Records, which has a connection with show producer 19 Entertainment. (William Hung was allowed to sign with independent Koch Records.)
- On the Discovery Channel's Roush Racing: Driver X, Erik Darnell won the contest, and earned a full-time Camping World Truck Series ride. Danny O'Quinn won a contract from the same owner (now Roush Fenway Racing) to drive in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which is considered one step up from the CWTS. David Ragan also was given a part-time deal with the CWTS. A year later (after evaluating the drivers following their first seasons), Darnell was still in CTS, O'Quinn had only a limited contract, and the runnerup, David Ragan, was in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the highest level of NASCAR competition. (Ragan was able to successfully clear evaluations after Mark Martin's initial retirement from full-time competition at the end of 2006.)
- Unlike traditional game shows, game operas are not subject to strict requirements such as those imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States after the quiz show scandals were uncovered in the early 1960s. Therefore, they do not have to disclose game rules, eligibility requirements, or even where the shows are taped. For example, Manhunt, a show where the contestants were "bounty hunters", and which claimed to originate from Hawaii, was actually taped at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. This information was not public knowledge until Beverly revealed this information on TVGameShows.net  in 2001. After this disclosure, UPN cancelled the show shortly after it debuted. In a similar vein, CBS asked trivia questions based on scenes from previous Big Brother episodes on Big Brother: All-Stars, which aired in 2006. However, the trivia answers are never revealed on air and the promotion's official rules imply that they cannot be found anywhere else, either. In contrast, viewers could look up answers from a similar promotion that had aired on Gameshow Marathon, a combination of traditional games.
Lives of contestants
Contestants on game operas are sequestered. They are not allowed to use cellular phones or the Internet and are at least highly discouraged from watching television or reading newspapers. An example of the consequences of breaking such rules occurred on the NBC series Last Comic Standing. On the episode which aired July 11, 2006, contestant Gabriel Iglesias was thrown off the show after he was found to have a BlackBerry in his possession. Iglesias insisted that he was only trying to stay in contact with his girlfriend. In most cases, contestants live together in a common location, whether it's the isolated settings of Survivor or the luxurious accommodations on The Apprentice and America's Next Top Model.
Contestants cannot be seen as having any lives outside the show (during taping) and must keep details of their appearance in strict secrecy until the program airs. Reportedly, contestants who violate confidentiality can be fined as much as $5 million and lose all money and prizes that they may have gained on the show.
Taping schedule and disclosure of winners
Shooting schedules of game operas vary widely. On non-talent shows, taping lasts between 30 and 45 days. Eliminations are announced at the end of each episode, and some shows announce their winners at the end of taping. But most programs announce their winners on a live season finale broadcast, which typically happens about two months after the original filming wraps up. This is done with two things in mind: it builds momentum for each new episode, giving viewers something to look forward to in the end, and it is supposed to prevent the ultimate outcome from being leaked in advance, which could be used by bettors to gain an unfair advantage.
In contrast, talent shows generally air two episodes a week. The first episode features performances from the contestants. In most cases, these performances are taped a few days before the show's air date. However, all performances on Dancing with the Stars, and final-round songs on American Idol, are done live. The second episode, which airs the night after the first, reveals the results of voting done by the public. All eliminations, and the announcement of the final winner, are revealed live, except on Rock Star, in which the results are tape delayed in the U.S. due to the show's global reach.
Voting methods and procedures
Methods of voting vary from show to show. American Idol votes are cast by telephone and text messaging. America's Got Talent accepts not only phone calls and texts, but also online votes from NBC's website. Last Comic Standing, So You Think You Can Dance (a "sister" show to both Idol and Talent), and Grease: You're the One that I Want! accept telephone votes only. Rock Star does not accept phone votes, at least not from American viewers.
Except on Dancing, no votes are allowed before the show ends. On that show, voting begins shortly after each episode hits the air and continues for another half-hour after the episode ends.
List of game operas on American television
- American Dream Derby (GSN)
- American Idol (Fox)
- American Juniors (Fox)
- America's Got Talent (NBC)
- America's Next Top Model (UPN/CW)
- Bands on the Run (VH1)
- Beauty and the Geek (WB/CW)
- Beg, Borrow & Deal (ESPN)
- Big Brother (CBS)
- Dancing With the Stars (ABC)
- Dream Job (ESPN)
- Grease: You're the One that I Want! (NBC)*
- Hell's Kitchen (Fox)
- I Wanna Be a Soap Star (SoapNet)
- Knight School (ESPN)
- Last Comic Standing (NBC)
- Making the Band (MTV)
- Manhunt (UPN)
- Murder in Small Town X (Fox)
- Nashville Star (USA)
- Paradise Hotel (Fox)
- Project Runway (Bravo)
- Rock Star (CBS)
- Solitary (Fox Reality)
- So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
- Star Tomorrow (NBC/NBC.com)
- Survivor (CBS)
- Temptation Island (Fox)
- The Amazing Race (CBS)
- The Apprentice (NBC)
- The Bachelor (ABC)
- The Benefactor (ABC)
- The Contender (NBC/ESPN)
- The Entertainer (E!)
- The Mole (ABC)
- The Next Great Champ (Fox/FSN)
- The One: Making a Music Star (ABC)
- The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best (Fox)
- The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll (CW)*
- The Ultimate Fighter (Spike TV)
- Treasure Hunters (NBC)
- Unan1mous (Fox)
- Who Wants to Be a Superhero? (Sci-Fi)
- WWE Tough Enough (MTV/UPN)
*Indicates upcoming program as of December 2006
- Long Bomb, by Brett Forrest. New York: Crown Books, 2001
- Time magazine, October 1, 2001 issue
- The Reality of Reality, Bravo TV special, 2004
- The Reality of Reality