CarterMatt Extended: Searching for the next reality hit beyond ‘Survivor,’ ‘Big Brother,’ ‘The Voice’
Remember the days when networks were taking some risks when it comes to reality television? It may seem foreign to some viewers at this point, and unfortunately so. There was a time not that long ago, that being on reality TV was a remarkable achievement, and something that differentiated you and gave you a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That was what the appeal of many of these competition shows were: A chance to see who you thought of as real, genuine people competing in strange ways for massive amounts of money.
Unfortunately, over the years the well for original reality programming has dried up. Take a look at all long-form reality competition shows; “The Voice” is the newest one airing on network television, and it is in its ninth season. “Survivor” is in season 31, “The Amazing Race” its 27th, and “Dancing with the Stars” its 21st. It is remarkable that these shows have persevered, and we’re thrilled about it since they are for the most part universally great. Even shows that are easy to be cynical about, such as “The Bachelor” and their fame-mongering and rose-peddling, have an audience that is consistently pleased at the end of every season.
So why are new shows not breaking out, or why didn’t great ideas from seasons past last? Even a show we have a personal connection to in “Beauty in the Geek” only lasted five seasons and there isn’t anything else out there like this concept. The answer is complicated, though just as much can be blamed on the networks as it can on viewer trends.
The thrill is gone
When “Survivor” helped to bring reality television into the mainstream, the idea was to see ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things. Watching this show for the first time is like eating your first peanut butter cup: It’s amazing, and you don’t know what you were doing before you tried it. Yet, over time the more you eat a peanut butter cup, the less it stands out as something special. Newer shows fail to capture on the nostalgia, or tap into that emotional meaning that many of us attach to old shows. For some, “Survivor” brings them back to their youth, watching the show with family; for others, something like “Big Brother” has been community-building for many years and you consider the other viewers your family.
From a pure numbers perspective, the reason why most major reality concepts are gone is because viewers did not watch them. A great example is “Whodunnit,” a fantastic murder-mystery competition that lasted only one season on ABC in the summer of 2013. It took elements of “Clue” and “The Mole,” which lasted for several years, and combined them for something that played almost like you were attending one of those mystery parties without having to dress up. This show had at least okay promotion from the NBA Finals, but just couldn’t find an audience in the summer willing to give it a try. Many viewers may have felt that they’d already seen something like this before. It’s possible that advertisers dropped the ball letting people know just what the show was; this was more of an issue with “The Quest,” a brilliant show that admittedly may have been a little too niche for a mainstream network. “King of the Nerds” simply aired on the wrong network for its audience, and “Beauty and the Geek” moved away from what made the show fun and added too many twists that viewers didn’t like.
If you want to encourage viewers to check out a new reality concept, there is at one thing networks have to hit on above all else: “What makes this show different from the dozens of other?” We feel like the reason “The Voice” was able to capture a little bit of that lightning in a bottle in the way that many other recent reality shows have not is because of its basic gimmick: There’s a blind audition, and the coach turns around if they want you. That’s it. There is no immunity or clue-hunt or black spot or worldly challenge. You take something simple, and then expand upon it. For “Survivor,” the premise was basically survival, with a different competitor leaving every week. We have a hard time envisioning Mark Burnett before season 1 in Borneo thinking that one day the show would have immunity idols, extra votes, and strategy in the way it does now.
Probably the biggest example of a new reality concept being dead on arrival is “Utopia,” which may have temporarily killed similar shows as we know it. While it is not a competition per se (the whole goal here is forming a society that lasts for a year), it still falls within this category and was still canceled for a lack of viewership. Given the financial investment Fox put into this, it has to be considered a disaster. What went wrong began with pushing the show at the same time that competitor “Big Brother” was around, and these shows are so intensive that you couldn’t really tap into that community (the same mistakes were made with “The Glass House” if you remember that). From there, the ads gave little incentive to convince people to watch. In many ways, marketing it as a year-long experiment hurt the show, since many assumed that it would require such a commitment that it wasn’t worth it. There was a similar concept airing in Canada called “The Lofters” where you could watch 8 people living in a loft together for a year and while they tried to have a second season, it was canceled fairly quickly.
The creativity is gone
This is why so many new reality concepts either fail now, or fail to even make it to the starting line. This is where networks are to blame, and there are few intangibles and numbers around that.
Remember when “The Mole” was a cult hit, even if the ratings were low? ABC decided that everyone (or no one) wanted to see a celebrity version, let alone two of them. From there, they took a long hiatus before eventually bringing it back for one more kick at the can. There was no consistency here to build a community, and you were not giving the people what they wanted: A show featuring real people. The same goes for our own show in “Beauty and the Geek,” who kicked off season 5 with an inane “Beauties vs. Geeks” competition that detracted from the entire purpose of the show. These ideas cause shows to shed viewers. As for other shows like “Expedition Impossible” (“The Amazing Race” with larger teams) and “Pirate Master” (a broken “Survivor” on a boat), there never really was much of an idea to begin with.
We think that many of the ideas stem mostly from this notion that show needs to drastically reinvent itself, and can get more publicity as a result. However, that’s not actually the case. Look at how “The Amazing Race” has, one blind date season and one family edition aside, given you close to the same thing every single time. Meanwhile, “The Voice” always has Blind Auditions and Battle Rounds. If your idea isn’t broke, why try to fix it? Shows at times doubt themselves and try to get creative later when they don’t realize that if they are creative enough in the first place, they spare yourself the additional legwork.
Here’s another question: Don’t you want to establish brand reliability? “The Mole” and “Beauty and the Geek” are both shows that suffered from airing whenever the networks felt like it, and we’re honestly surprised that a show like Spike TV’s “Ink Master” is able to keep it going with its own willy-nilly scheduling. Major networks are dropping the ball establishing a time when viewers can know that quality reality competition programming is available; they are willing to devote the same time every year to a sitcom or a medical drama, but for a reality show they’ll just throw it in as a replacement or summer filler show without much thought. They take these viewers for granted, feeling like they’ll just pop in and out and that for some reason, creating devoted followers is not important.
For these reality shows that are lucky enough to get on the air for a season or two, you have to realize that keeping viewers is a marathon, and it is okay to have confidence in your cast. They are the people who will continue to have viewers interested in your concept way more than the twist-of-the-month.
Where do we go from here?
Is the age of innovative reality television gone? We definitely would understand anyone out there who possesses such a fear, but we want to continue to have hope. Genre television is cyclical, as is dream-building. The idea of a reality competition show is to create almost a fear of excitement and even jealousy at times, where you can put yourselves into the shows of a contestant or imagine what you would be like in the competition. These feelings are never going to go away.
The biggest thing that we plead network executives for at the moment is that you continue to give these shows a chance, and let them find a way whether it be through social media or other forms of technology to do something others have not done before. Let’s ask a question here to NBC: Would you rather fund an experimental reality show like a “Whodunnit,” or give that same money to “Truth Be Told,” a truthfully-bad sitcom that someone had to envision was going to be canceled soon? For viewers, these shows are worthy of your fandom and appreciation. Meanwhile, for networks they are worthy of your attention.
It’s time to let the games, or at least the game-shows, begin again.
CarterMatt Extended is a feature, comprising of in-depth articles on various TV topics posted every Wednesday night. If you want to sign up for news sent to you every week, you can do so on our Newsletter page.