Entertainment, Film and Music

Reality TV facing its own reality: a ratings slump

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  • Fox bet the farm on the voyeuristic ‘Utopia’; viewers yawned. The loss? Estimated at more than $50 million
  • Reality hits ‘Survivor’ and ‘Dancing With the Stars’ are showing their age, and the ratings reflect that
  • Despite ratings declines, networks still need unscripted series, experts say

Just a few years ago, underemployed TV writers were complaining that reality programming was taking over their industry.

Now the scribes are having their revenge: Unscripted programming is mired in an unexpected slump.

Onetime smashes such as “Survivor” and “Dancing With the Stars” are drooping with age. Coca-Cola recently wrapped up its 13-year sponsorship of “American Idol” after Fox’s singing hit plummeted in the ratings last season. NBC’s own singing show, “The Voice,” saw its season finale drop nearly 10% this month.

And what’s worse, no new hits are taking their place.

'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo'

Fox bet the farm early this season on “Utopia,” a voyeuristic series in which a group of isolated “pioneers” was observed trying to create a new society. Viewers yawned, and the network eventually canceled the program, for a loss that insiders pegged at more than $50 million. ABC drew disappointing results this summer with its gimmicky singing show “Rising Star.”

“Reality TV was supposed to be a long-term fix to the problems of television, but that optimism was misguided,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “Program executives overestimated the true value of the commodity and drove the genre into the ground.”

Even cable networks, a longtime proving ground for the genre, are seeing diminishing returns.

A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” ratings have plunged, even though they are still high by cable standards. TLC this fall quickly shelved its hit “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” after matriarch Mama June was accused of dating a sex offender, but viewership had already declined sharply. And this fall, AMC largely abandoned a three-year foray into unscripted programming, deciding to return its primary focus to its signature scripted series such as “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.”

What’s the problem? Industry observers pin the blame on various factors. Too many copycat shows. Too many airings of the few hit shows out there (“Idol,” which once aired as many as three times a week, will get cut to one night per week for this winter’s Season 14). Too few truly original concepts.

Of course, there are still plenty of reality series to go around. In fact, some TV executives point out that the broadcasters probably wouldn’t be able to stay in business without unscripted series. That’s because, as overall network viewership has declined in the face of competition from cable and the Internet, ad income has stagnated.
Program executives overestimated the true value of the commodity and drove the genre into the ground. – Jeffrey McCall, media studies professor, DePauw University

Reality shows are usually relatively inexpensive to produce — “Utopia” was an exception because of a rich deal struck with the producers — and can be scheduled for many more hours than comedies or dramas. Thus, reality is a cheap way to fill prime time.

Take “The Voice.” Despite its ratings fall-off, the singing contest remains one of the top shows on TV. This month’s season finale delivered 12.7 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. That was off 8% compared with the December 2013 finale, but those kinds of numbers still easily vault “The Voice” into the top 10. Then there’s the No. 2 reality series, “Survivor,” which has proved an enduring hit for CBS; next year, it heads into its 30th edition.

“These are enormous franchises that, frankly, don’t come along that often. Every six or seven years, a mega-format comes along,” said Paul Telegdy, who oversees “The Voice” as NBC Entertainment’s president of alternative and late-night programming. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the reality business.”



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