For the past few years now, there has been a near-constant mob of people waiting with metaphorical megaphones to make an announcement — that reality TV as a genre is failing, and that network heads need to find some sort of solution to fix what can be best described as “viewer erosion.”
Do these people now have a reason to actually start making these proclamations? It certainly seems feasible.
A loss for “Loser”
While there is certainly a pile of evidence that reality TV is waning, the trendy example is going to come with “The Biggest Loser.” After over ten seasons, the ratings have gradually fallen — and for the premiere on Tuesday, the show only mustered a 2.3 rating without even facing a new episode of “Glee.” This is a 30% drop from where it was last year, and it marks the lowest-rated spring premiere ever.
Typically, it’s expected that a show loses about 10-15% of its audience from one season to the next — but to double that? “The Biggest Loser” is still a ratings success on a starving NBC, but there’s only so much that this show can afford to “lose” moving forward.
The downward trend
Despite some casting headlines, “Dancing with the Stars” hit is lowest numbers ever for its fall season this past year, while “The X Factor” missed expectations and barely fared better than “The Voice.” “The Bachelor” premiere Monday was down 17% versus last year, and that was when the lead was the somewhat-unpopular Brad Womack. Over the summer, “So You Think You Can Dance” dropped like an anchor in the ocean following a strong start. “America’s Got Talent” even started to show some age during the live rounds. “American Idol” has yet to premiere, but with the new-car smell off of the judges (plus some inevitable singing show fatigue) it’s fair to expect a drop.
It’s easy to refer to “The Biggest Loser” as an anomaly that ratings for competition shows are dropping fast (and it is dropping at a faster rate than most), but the fact that there is a trend here among competition shows is tricky to ignore.
If you look at reality-competition shows that run over an hour, you can really attribute it the decline to a couple of simple factors:
1. These shows are just too bloated
Do we need to watch thirty minutes of people being weighed in? Is it necessary to watch a dancing show where we don’t see the first dance for 15 minutes? This running time may be good background noise for conversations, but it’s not altogether good when you are trying to actually keep people glued to the TV.
There’s also the issue of commitment here, and a two-hour commitment to a “Bachelor” or “Biggest Loser” is far worse than a one-hour commitment to a “Survivor” (which has fallen, but at a slower rate) or a “Top Chef.” These shows pretty much require you to watch them the night of, or otherwise you risk spoilers lurking around every corner (and potentially at your corner office). When your show is all about the big payoff (whereas scripted shows are still enjoying on your DVR), you lose something by watching later on.
The truth is that these shows can exist without crawling at a snail’s pace. “The Biggest Loser” can easily be an hour, and “The Bachelor” could alternate from 90 minutes to 60 depending on how many ladies are left. In the United Kingdom, “The X Factor” adjusts its run time weekly to however many contestants are left — why couldn’t that be done here?
Odds are you probably heard the news that the “So You Think You Can Dance” results show was canceled this week due to low ratings. While this is saddening in the sense that this show — in between the group number and the “dance for your life” performances — was probably the best “results show” of the lot, it is going to have an opportunity now to show that you can have a successful competition show without committing three hours a week to watching it. Results shows in their barest essence could be done in five minutes, or even 30 if you wanted to throw in a musical guest.
You may have also heard that Tom Bergeron suggested last fall to TV Guide that it may be smart for “Dancing with the Stars” to move to the “Idol” mold of only airing one season a year. This way, they could attract some bigger celebrities while making the show feel more like an “event.” It’s a smart move, especially since it and “Loser” — which are losing viewers seemingly the fastest — both put on two seasons a year.
2. The problem is in the premise itself
While you can shorten run times and try to introduce some creative components, reality TV is like any other genre in one way — everything eventually runs its course. The problem is that some shows reach the end sooner rather than later.
The issue that “The Biggest Loser” runs in to is that while there is some strategy involved, the show’s inherently about losing weight. If you don’t lose weight, you go home — you know what you’re going to get. The same goes for any singing competition — there are only so many singers out there, and eventually people will tire of the same ol’ thing. There is only so much diversity you can get in a limiting premise
“Survivor” and “Big Brother” (which actually does require a massive commitment, albeit in the summer) have managed to hold on to numbers after a decade, and it’s largely been because their games are more malleable and are largely about strategy rather than what a scale or a judge spouts off. However, even they are now having to resort to gimmicks like twist votes, redemption island, and bringing back past contestants. A solid contestant pool can keep it going for a while … but how long?
As much as we may analyze it, the truth is that the once-hip reality competition show is becoming a dinosaur, and networks have grown lazy over the years relying on them for ratings, scheduling them throughout the year, and making their installments as long as possible. In the short term, it helps those in the TV industry forget about the struggles of some scripted programming — but in the long term, it shows that the entertainment world really has no back-up plan for a world without sequins, judging panels, or handing out roses.