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The Year In Review: Reality TV still delivering strong ratings, despite missteps


By Wade Paulsen, 04/16/2005 

At the "upfront" advertising-sales meetings prior to the 2004-05 primetime television season, the six U.S. broadcast networks and their cable competitors made it clear that the next season would feature lots and lots of reality television. In fact, the push for more reality TV became so severe that one network (Fox) resorted to the blatant theft of other networks' ideas. Now that the season is in its final two months, how did this glut of reality shows fare?

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Based on the numbers for the second half of the season, it appears that reality shows have done quite well... although not as well as the networks may have hoped. For the future, it appears that reality shows will take their place in network lineups next to scripted shows, with some new and existing shows emerging as surprising successes, while others end up as dismal flops. Some of Hollywood's premier scripted television production companies also seem to agree, with firms such as Dreamworks Television (The Contender) and Imagine Television (Treasure Hunters) increasingly realizing that reality programming is here to stay and partnering with established reality TV producers in an attempt to secure themselves a piece of the broadcast networks' growing unscripted programming development dollars.

The week ending April 10 provides a good opportunity to evaluate the current status of reality TV, as very little special-event programming took place. Six reality shows placed among the week's top 20 most watched shows, and all six ranked among the week's top 12 in the more important Adults 18-49 demographic (the demographic most sought by advertisers). In addition, while not ranked among the week's top 20 viewership rankings, a seventh reality series also placed among the week's top 20 among Adults 18-49. But at the same time, a number of high-profile reality shows have failed this season, and several others continue to struggle -- just like scripted shows.

The year's top reality shows include the following:

American Idol on Fox, now in its third regular season after its debut in the summer of 2002. Idol placed second for the April 10 week in its Tuesday-night edition and third for the week in its Wednesday-night edition. For the year, both Idol editions, as well as special editions on Monday night (during the semifinals) and Thursday night (due to voting mishaps) have consistently placed in the top five, and the Tuesday night edition is currently the top ranked show for the year, although locked in a battle with ABC’s rookie smash hit Desperate Housewives.

Survivor on CBS, which has consistently been a top 10 show throughout its five-year run. This year, freed from the competition of NBC’s Friends, which also was a top 10 show, Survivor has been posting some of its most impressive numbers ever. For example, the April 7 broadcast of Survivor: Palau, its current edition, drew a larger audience (19.75 million) than the COMBINED viewing audience (18.58 million) of its NBC, ABC and Fox time period competition. And, proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, ABC admits that Survivor provided the inspiration for the other ABC's other rookie smash hit -- Lost.

The Apprentice on NBC, despite the fact that the show has suffered from the loss of Friends and the flop of its Joey spinoff. The Apprentice has slipped out of the overall top 10, but it remains very strong among Adults 18-49 -- and it has been the Peacock Network’s highest-rated show for the year, saving the network from a Thursday night disaster. For this past week, The Apprentice 3 ranked 13th overall and 8th among Adults 18-49.

To illustrate the importance of lead-ins, consider NBC’s midseason launch of The Office. In its first episode, The Office was given a 9:30PM/ET debut following a special 8:30-9:30PM ET/PT broadcast of The Apprentice; subsequently, it has aired on Tuesday nights. It drew 11.2 million following The Apprentice. It has never drawn more than 6 million in three Tuesday night showings.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on ABC. Although its ratings have slipped a bit due to its head-to-head competition with NBC’s The Contender, the show has been one of ABC’s three breakout top 10 hits. Ratings have skyrocketed since its December 2003 debut as a cross between host Ty Pennington’s former show, TLC’s Trading Spaces, and the ABC plastic-surgery reality show Extreme Makeover. Apparently viewers enjoy seeing houses made over more than seeing people made over.

The Amazing Race on CBS, which has been the major ratings shock of the season. When CBS first announced that it would return the back-to-back "Best Reality-Competition Program" Emmy winner to its regular lineup, it was intended as an "economy" move to keep CBS from having to produce a more-expensive show for Saturday nights. Instead, The Amazing Race 7 has now drawn more than 12.25 million viewers for each of its last four broadcasts -- the first time in its four-year run that it has ever delivered four consecutive audiences that large. In addition, the show now regularly contends for a spot in the Adults 18-49 top 10 (it was 11th this week). Although part of the audience growth may be due to the casting of Survivor: All-Stars winners/lovebirds Amber Brkich and "Boston Rob" Mariano as one of the racing couples, another part appears to be due to the patience that CBS displayed in allowing the show to survive its early low ratings.

Supernanny on ABC. Along with Survivor and Idol (which brought Simon Cowell over from the U.K.), this show is a European import – and “supernanny” Jo Frost apparently relates as well to American audiences as to English ones, judging by the show’s surprising finish among the week's Adults 18-49 top 20 rankings. Whether that indicates that the show, which had failed to make the top 60 overall in some of its earlier showings, has finally found its audience remains to be seen.

The Simple Life 3 on Fox. The idea of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie playing simpletons has lost its media buzz, but it still hasn’t lost its attraction to viewers, making several appearances in the overall top 20 (and the top 10 among Adults 18-49) during the season.

In addition, NBC’s Fear Factor continues to pull respectable ratings, although it only infrequently reaches its former top 20 heights. The network's The Biggest Loser was a surprise fall hit, with regular top 20 appearances. And even ABC’s Wife Swap and Fox clone Trading Spouses -- as well as Fox Supernanny clone Nanny 911 -- have posted good numbers. Despite a pronounced skew toward the young male viewing demographic, NBC’s The Contender has also showed promise. And despite its status as a summer/early fall series, CBS’s Big Brother has been a solid hit for four straight summers after struggling in its debut season.

As NBC Universal Television Group head Jeff Zucker told the Orlando Sentinel, "Unscripted programming is doing incredibly well. American Idol, Survivor, Apprentice, Biggest Loser, Fear Factor, Home Makeover -- these are among the biggest shows on television. Reality television has had a very good year."

So good in fact, that one network decided to rebuild itself around the success of its hit reality TV series. UPN, the "little sister" network to CBS in Viacom, claimed that it had finally found an identity thanks to the success of America's Next Top Model and introduced an entire season of shows designed to appeal to Top Model's predominately female audience.

At the same time, networks learned that derivative reality programming can fail every bit as quickly as derivative scripted programming. Among the failures were two clones of The Apprentice helmed by billionaires: ABC’s The Benefactor, featuring Web investor Mark Cuban, and Fox’s The Rebel Billionaire with Virgin Records/Airlines/etc. head Richard Branson.

Other clones that flopped for Fox were The Next Great Champ, which copied The Contender without its appeal to people outside the boxing world, and My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, which fell victim to the Joe Millionaire syndrome (that is, a parody concept only works once). CBS's "pre-clone" Wickedly Perfect (a show apparently designed to steal Martha Stewart's thunder before her release from prison) also failed dismally despite being given Survivor's high-profile time slot, as did NBC's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search (a Top Model clone designed to appeal to men that failed to draw women).

And then there were the weird missteps: Fox's Who’s Your Daddy? (in which a woman tried to identify her unknown biological father), NBC's Last Comic Standing 3 (a slapdash edition using contestants from the first two series that may have killed the successful summer series), Fox's The Complex (a huge hit in Australia that misfired in the U.S., perhaps because it looked like a low-budget, downsized clone of TBS's House Rules) and CBS's The Will (a long-stalled project that was cancelled after its very first episode in the face of scathing criticism and audience indifference).

Viacom co-chairman Les Moonves noted that the shows that failed tended to be lesser-quality productions. "We have been successful with the quality of our reality shows. Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother are all quality shows. I think The Will was not very good ..... It wasn't our finest moment. So, once again, as we go forward with our reality shows -- and there's still a place for them -- we realize what we have to do." Hopefully, Moonves also learned something about the problems that come from "cloning" shows after the flop of Wickedly Perfect.

Just as existing scripted series fade over time, some reality shows that were once hits have also started to shed their core audience. High on that list is ABC’s The Bachelor/The Bachelorette frachise, which reached a new ratings low this year when former Bachelor 3 fiancée Jen Schefft went through 25 guys without finding one that she was interested in -- and then admitted that she’d only done the show for the additional "15 minutes of fame," not to find a mate. With only one lasting couple (Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter) having come out of its numerous editions, the show's "choose your spouse" premise has suffered a severe loss of credibility. .

Additionally, one entire genre of shows seems to be dying out: the plastic-surgery shows. The decline of ABC's Extreme Makeover was matched by the apparent death of Fox's once-successful The Swan, after its Fall 2004 second edition failed to attract the interest of its first.

As with the broadcast shows, some of the new cable reality shows were hits -- and more than a few were misses. Among the hits were Bravo's Project Runway, MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, TBS's The Real Gilligan's Island, and VH1's "Celebreality" lineup of The Surreal Life and Celebrity Fit Club -- all of which will return with new editions later this year. Meanwhile, new seasons of established cable shows such as USA's Nashville Star and MTV's Newlyweds have also been successful.

The biggest surprise, though, came from the sudden collapse of two existing reality shows. TLC's Trading Spaces, which has had its thunder (and its carpenter, Ty Pennington) stolen by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The flagship TLC series dropped 46% among adults 18-49 -- a drop so severe that the network president was fired and the show itself received a makeover, shedding longtime hostess Paige Davis in a desperate transition to a "host-free" format.

Another stunner was Bravo's Emmy-winning smash of last year, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which collapsed in its second-season ratings. Nevertheless, Bravo's "Watch What Happens" programming lineup is now largely a collection of unscripted shows, including shows such as the Queer Eye for the Straight Girl spinoff, Project Runway, former HBO show Project Greenlight, Celebrity Poker Showdown, Showbiz Moms and Dads, Showdog Moms and Dads, Forty Deuce and the upcoming Blow Out 2, with mixed success (while a few scripted reruns, such as The West Wing, remain around for "balance"). Just as with the broadcast networks, the quality reality shows (e.g., Project Runway) produce good ratings and lots of "buzz"; the other shows don't.

Of course, the gap between making quality shows and talking about making quality shows has existed since television was in its infancy. But perhaps networks will now learn that it applies in reality TV every bit as much as it does in scripted TV and will incorporate that into the 2005-06 planning cycles, beginning at the May upfronts. NBC Universal Television's Jeff Zucker, for one, appears to have learned his lesson: "Most new scripted programming fails. Most new reality programs fail. I don't think there's any difference."


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