More than a decade after Survivor altered the TV landscape forever, reality TV continues to be a potent weapon for broadcasters: Last week, the top-rated shows on ABC, Fox, and NBC were all unscripted series. But here’s what’s not so great: Those three shows — The Bachelor, American Idol, and The Biggest Loser — were all conceived during or before George W. Bush’s first administration. There’s nothing wrong with enduring franchises. But while cable seems to invent a new reality phenom every other month, the Big Four haven’t launched an unscripted success since 2011, the year of the Idol-inspired The Voice (NBC) and The X Factor (Fox). CBS’s last breakout reality hit was 2010’s Undercover Boss, and ABC has been unable to come up with an unscripted game-changer since 2008’s Wipeout, though 2009’s Shark Tank has grown into a solid success over time. (ABC’s newest attempt, the celebrity-diving competition show Splash, debuts tonight.) So what’s behind what one network insider concedes is a “crisis of confidence” for broadcast reality? Vulture talked to multiple reality producers and executives; based on what they told us, we came up with five factors that may be contributing to the dry spell.
1. Networks don’t step up to the plate enough.
While cable has seemingly unlimited shelf space for launching new unscripted shows, broadcast real estate is much more limited. Think about it: Cable schedules most of its original series in bursts of six, ten, or thirteen episodes, resulting in prime-time lineups that change every few months, allowing for plenty of chances to try out something new. Broadcasters are still largely wedded to an ancient nine-month schedule in which the goal is to keep the same number of shows in the same slot week after week, year after year. What’s more, advertisers generally pay less for commercial time during unscripted material than they do during scripted. That’s a major reason that networks try to limit reality shows to “one third to one fourth of their schedules,” according to one industry insider. And the number of potential at-bats for new unscripted series is actually even smaller because established hits from the reality boom days (American Idol, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, Celebrity Apprentice, et al) refuse to die, and some, like Idol, can gobble up to three hours out of a network’s weekly schedule. “Every network has several of these shows,” says Mike Darnell, president of Fox’s alternative division. “They take up a lot of hours, they cover a lot of holes … and in this age, they’re still doing a good number.” And when you’ve got a hit, even if it’s not as strong as it used to be, it doesn’t make sense to let it go. John Saade, ABC’s executive VP in charge of alternative and late-night programming, says keeping these veteran series healthy has become “a big part” of the job for reality execs. “The shows that are working have become sports leagues,” he says. “They keep going and going and going in a way scripted shows don’t.”
But while it’s logical that nets would invest so much energy in keeping these old flames burning, limiting the number of new show launches makes it that much harder to come up with the next big success for when the old standbys finally fade. A cable network such as TLC produces hit after hit in part because it throws out dozens of reality concepts every year: For every Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, there are two or three flops like Sin City Rules or Starter Wives. By contrast, the Big Four broadcasters will have unveiled just six unscripted concepts combined by the time the season ends in May: Four series (CBS’s already-dead The Job; ABC’s The Taste, Splash, and Bet on Your Baby; NBCs Ready for Love) and one special (Fox’s Stars in Danger: The High Dive). The networks will try out more new shows in the summer, but even with those projects, the overall tally of new reality is still relatively tiny. What’s more, while networks don’t hesitate to spend literally tens of millions each year on expensive drama and comedy pilots — most of which will never see the light of day — executives seem unwilling to shell out even a fraction of that amount on unscripted pilots. Says one veteran reality producer, “If you get them to be really frank, they’ll admit they have a hard time getting [their bosses] to pilot and do new things.”
2. When networks do develop new shows, they play it safe.
It used to be easy for reality execs to take chances and try something new because, during the early years of the modern reality era, such gambles usually resulted in success. “Any idea would pop, and at least a portion of the audience would be interested,” Darnell says. ABC’s Saade notes that at least one out of every two shows launched back in the early aughts would work, and he’s probably being conservative. Because reality had such a high rate of success, it was relatively easy for alternative execs to convince their bosses to roll the dice. Cheesy celebs doing ballroom dancing? Why not! A dating show where suitors wore masks to hide their looks? Let’s do it! In other words, taking chances wasn’t actually all that risky.
But these days, network reality shows seem to have the same success/failure ratio as scripted series: Most fail, few break out big. And since reality execs get far fewer at-bats than their drama and comedy peers — NBC will have launched ten scripted shows by the end of this season, and just one new reality series — the stakes are that much higher. Programmers “land in a safety zone. They say, ‘Let’s do stuff we’ve seen before’,” one reality vet admits. “It’s just like with dramas, where it’s like, ‘Let’s do another forensic show or procedural.’ There’s a safety net [in doing the familiar].” After all, if a “safe” idea fails — the seventh music competition or yet another twist on The Bachelor — it’s easy to blame it on poor marketing or a tough time slot. But if an exec tries something radical and viewers don’t show up, the postmortem might easily focus on why anyone thought something so different had a shot at working. “This whole business puts you in a scaredy-cat place,” another unscripted insider laments. “It’s hard to try to stay fearless.” Andy Dehnart, who’s been covering unscripted TV via his Reality Blurred website for more than a decade, argues the networks’ cautiousness ignores the recent history of the form. “They rarely take chances, which is both unsurprising and ironic, considering how Survivor was rejected by everyone but completely altered broadcast television to this day, from the presence of reality TV to the lack of summer reruns,” he says. “When someone does take a risk and it pays off, everyone else follows, rather than taking their own risks.”
3. Cable has saturated the marketplace, making it harder for the networks to stand out.
While there are only a few slots open for new network reality shows, there’s apparently no limit to the number of unscripted series that can be produced for cable. As noted above, reality giants such as TLC, Discovery, A&E, Bravo, or E! debut dozens of new series or specials every year, some of which come and go without anyone even noticing they were on. And it seems there’s virtually no cable network that hasn’t expanded into unscripted programming, including channels that wouldn’t automatically seem amenable to such fare: IFC, AMC, the Weather Channel, and, just a few weeks ago, CNBC. “Original content on TV is booming,” says Eli Holzman, president of All3Media America and the executive producer of Undercover Boss. “I’ve read that something like 600 new shows premiered on TV last year, and this year, there could be 1,200.” What’s more, the moment some new reality idea shows even a hint of catching on, the cable reality factory kicks into high gear and starts shooting out clones. “There’s a saturation factor going on,” one reality insider explains. “If you put a pawn show on cable, a year later, there’s 25 of them.” And because cable floods the marketplace with every conceivable twist on an idea, “there are fewer and fewer untapped categories that rise to the level of a network show,” Holzman says. “It’s so crowded, they have to be that much bigger and different.” Or as Fox’s Darnell puts it, “The genre has gotten mature. It means that less is going to work, just because there’s a cynicism that’s set in with the audience. You can’t shock people with an idea that would have before.”
4. Broadcasters keep drawing from the same small gene pool.
Network executives say their doors are “always open” to anybody with a good idea. But the reality is, broadcasters have increasingly started relying on just a handful of producers they know and trust — Mark Burnett (Survivor, Shark Tank, Celebrity Apprentice), Arthur Smith (Hell’s Kitchen), FremantleMedia (American Idol, The X Factor), Endemol (Big Brother) — rather than trusting someone new and untested. “Show me the series the networks have bought from the unknown guy lately,” says one longtime unscripted producer. “They don’t open themselves up to new suppliers.” One network exec concedes this is an issue: “There has been a consolidation of producers. All the networks have shrunk their list to a number of people they’re willing to make multi-million commitments to.” In the past, rolling the dice on an unknown (as Burnett was pre-Survivor) wasn’t such a big deal because unscripted fare was seen as “alternative” programming. These pre-Survivor shows (think Real People or Kids Say the Darndest Thing) were what broadcasters used to plug holes in their schedules or air instead of repeats. “It was filler,” explains Holzman. But now Fox builds its entire lineup around Idol and X-Factor; NBC’s ratings go to hell when The Voice is off the air. “It’s no longer the alternative,” Holzman adds. “It’s the mainstay.” One network exec concedes that “we’re partially at fault for relying on the same people,” but notes the huge stakes involved in putting together a network show demands a level of experience only a few producers have. “It takes a certain skill [level] to run one of these shows,” the executive says.
5. Networks refuse to experiment with cable’s most successful format: the docu-soap.
A&E’s Duck Dynasty now outdraws almost everything on NBC. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a bona fide cultural phenom. Bravo churns out Real Housewives spinoffs like they were Marvel comics. All three franchises are variations on the so-called “docu-soap” format, personality-driven shows that focus on outrageous characters instead of extraordinary competitions. They’re all over cable but completely nonexistent on broadcast. Networks say the genre is simply “too cable,” a distinction Dehnart dismisses as a relic of an age when the Big Four dominated. “The division between broadcast and cable is arbitrary and artificial, a way to make excuses to higher-ups who lack vision and creativity,” he says.
Darnell, who was behind docu-soap pioneer The Simple Life, insists he’s not closed to any concept. “I’m open to anything that works. I’m absolutely willing to try docusoaps or comedies,” he says. “But one of the reasons [cable docu-soaps] work is the multitude of times in a week they air.” That’s true: Cablers blanket their daytime lineups with repeats of docu-soaps and devote entire weekends to replaying full seasons of such shows. But broadcast networks can still stream on Hulu or on their own websites; they could also experiment with reality repeats in daytime and late night. Refusing to delve into an entire genre of unscripted TV just seems silly, particularly when networks are bleeding viewers in most time slots and broadcast reality is in a creative slump. There will inevitably be flops, but so what? Almost all of the networks’ new comedies and dramas flopped this fall, but the Big Four are currently spending hundreds of millions to produce pilots for dozens of new scripted shows. If broadcasters want to find a new generation of reality hits, they’re going to have to take some truly bold chances and expect to suffer some embarassing failures. But as Reality Blurred’s Dehnart says, “Without failure, how do you know what would or wouldn’t work? How do you learn?”