Has reality TV finally run it course

Turn on the tv today and there's bound to be B-list celebrities dancing, running a bed and breakfast, or trying to lose weight. It's almost hard to remember the days when reality television didn't dominate television programming, and scripted comedies and dramas were the norm. But those days may be enjoying a renaissance in the near future thanks to the onset of reality fatigue.
December 1, 2007

Turn on the TV today and there’s bound to be B-list celebrities dancing, running a bed and breakfast, or trying to lose weight. It’s almost hard to remember the days when reality television didn’t dominate television programming, and scripted comedies and dramas were the norm. But those days may be enjoying a renaissance in the near future thanks to the onset of reality fatigue.

The abundance of reality programming on television today doesn’t quite mesh with the fact that reality numbers are generally on the decline. Reality peaked with major competition-based productions and has been petering out since 2005.

It’s a strange time for reality TV when shows about singing and dancing share the top ratings alongside the older reality shows struggling to recapture their original large audiences in the key 18-to-49 demographic. However, there are increasingly fewer choices in non-fiction for ages beyond that key demo.

Slow devolution
North Americans began their love affair with the genre back in 2000, with the debut of Survivor. Even though the show debuted with 15 million viewers, by the season finale 51.7 million Americans were tuning in, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Numerous reality series have attempted to follow in Survivor‘s footsteps, to varying degrees of success. Temptation Island and The Apprentice: Martha Stewart were not success stories, with the latter receiving a network-stingy average of 7.1 million viewers. On the other hand, The Amazing Race and Big Brother gained huge audiences, but even their numbers are shrinking as each year passes.

At a time when The Amazing Race 12 and Survivor 16 are in the works, people in the media buying industry are wondering if audiences’ tastes are turning back to scripted shows.

‘I think people want more scripted dramas and comedies,’ says Sunni Boot, president and CEO of ZenithOptimedia Canada, and the numbers suggest she might be on to something. In Boot’s backyard, a sampling of the audience for reality demonstrates the wider issue. According to BBM Analytics statistics provided by ZenithOptimedia, Toronto women aged 25 to 54 are still watching The Amazing Race, but not as many as just three years ago. In 2004, an average of 203,000 female viewers in that demo were tuning into The Amazing Race 5. The latest incarnation of the adventure competition has an average of 166,000 female viewers. Compare that to the 251,000 women in that demo who watched CSI or the 202,000 who watched Grey’s Anatomy this year.

The difference is more palpable once men are factored in. In the adult demographic of both men and women aged 18 to 49 years, 29% of Toronto viewers have dropped off from The Amazing Race 5 to The Amazing Race 11.

The show that started it all, Survivor, has suffered a ratings decline as well. The most successful version was Survivor 2: the Australian Outback, which had an average of 29.8 million us viewers. Since 2005, however, the numbers have dropped from Palau‘s season average of 20.9 million to the spring 2007 season of Survivor: Fiji, dwindling down to 14.8 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In an attempt to bring ratings back, some have resorted to gimmicks. Survivor: Cook Islands separated teams by race in 2006. This attempt did not play for CBS, as Nielsen Media Research ratings show an average of 15.5 million American viewers during the season’s run. Similarly, The Amazing Race produced a family edition in the fall/winter of 2005, which lost 38% of the coveted adult 18-to-49 demographic from the previous season, in the Toronto sample.

Some shows have managed better without obvious adaptations. American Idol is an anomaly with steady ratings over its six-year run. The first Idol had 23 million viewers watching the season finale, which increased to 30 million for subsequent editions, including the most recent.

In the quest to recapture dwindling audiences, shows have added game show elements, to varying degrees of success. For example, shows testing regular folks’ memory – people remembering lyrics to songs and showcasing their elementary school knowledge – have had some audience interest.

Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Singing Bee – they had buzz generated around their premieres, but they’re not maintaining audiences. They’re not going to be top-10 shows the way Survivor, The Amazing Race and American Idol are,’ says Boot. ‘Typically the first few [shows] are always the best, they maintain ratings, audience and talk value, [but the] subsequent ones just become poorer.’

Viewers have enough broadcast networks options, but if they are on the hunt for something quite different, they can turn to cable networks. There are a multitude of reality options, from tattoo artists, bounty hunters and many ‘celebrity’ shows. But the vast number of reality choices available between both broadcast and cable could be detrimental to rallying the audience behind one particular show. A few are managing to make it onto the top-15 cable rankings, such as MTV’s hit, The Hills, which had 3.3 million viewers in the US.

‘There has been saturation over the last three years. Much of that is due to the fact that there hasn’t been any real juggernaut that’s come out of left field to spark huge interest from viewers,’ says Tom Weeks, VP entertainment director of Starcom USA. ‘There hasn’t been anything that’s broken through the clutter.’

TV for Boomers
With so many options aimed at the advertiser-coveted 18-to 49-year-olds, another audience is blatantly ignored: the 45-plus, who probably aren’t watching Flavor of Love. Buyers say it’s a potentially huge audience few are tapping into.

There aren’t many programs or networks aimed specifically for the baby boomer crowd. Yet people aged 65 years and up accounted for one in every eight Americans in 2006, according to the US Administration of Aging – statistically outnumbering the one in 13 Americans who is 15 to 19 years old, and the one in 14 who is 20 to 24 years old.

‘The nature of reality programming is to skew younger,’ says Marc Wallen, managing partner of Mediacom US. ‘It’s not meant to skew old.’ That’s a problem for older viewers who are being lost in the mix.

One network has eschewed their core audience in order to keep younger viewers watching, and the boomers are tuning out. As realscreen has documented, A&E originally showed sophisticated arts and entertainment (read: dull), but overhauling the programming into a mix of unique reality stars like Dog The Bounty Hunter and Gene Simmons Family Jewels, coupled with CSI Miami reruns, has unpredictably made them a hit. This move has catapulted A&E into the top-10 cable ranking, meanwhile it dropped its average viewer age of 61 in primetime down to 46 years.

It made A&E a success, but there’s only so much of that audience to go around, and it leaves the older audience A&E shifted away from without many options.

Boot thinks networks should be doing more to appeal to the older viewer. ‘These are men and women who have the affluence and they don’t mind being marketed to if it’s the right product,’ says Boot.

She notes that whenever networks decide to cater to this large untapped audience, it’s crucial that they also understand it as it manifests contemporarily. ‘While they’re aging in years, their attitude and lifestyles are actually a lot different than senior citizens, for lack of a better term, were in the previous generation,’ says Boot. ‘This isn’t your grandma’s grandma. This is a woman who is probably more affluent, certainly more educated and willing to travel.’

The baby boomer audience has the potential to add numbers to some niche programming networks. Boot mentions HGTV as one possible example. ‘Here is an area which is of acute interest to boomers, design and decorating. HGTV – more than almost anybody, other than Travel or Food – could go in that direction of really catering to the boomer,’ says Boot.

While some reality programming remains dependable for broadcasters, new hits are becoming harder to come by. Ironically – given that so many have bent over backwards to avoid it recently – the answer might be found in appealing to an aging population. While key advertiser demos will likely keep watching American Idol, and there isn’t likely to be a shortage of B-listers to perform seven days a week, it’s going to be hard for broadcasters and advertisers alike to ignore an audience aging away from reality fare.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.