Project Runway returns for its ninth season tonight. While that’s a long time for any TV show, in the world of reality it’s a young ‘un: Shows like Survivor, The Real World, and America’s Next Top Model are all deep into the double digits. How have they done it without running out of juice? Some have added new twists and features, like all-star editions, more screaming, and new judges, while some have clung desperately to the original formula that got them this far. We looked at some of the longest-running reality hits still on the air to see what tweaks they made along the way: Did they help rejuvenate the shows, or are they now living on borrowed time?
Premiered: May 21, 1992
It has perhaps gotten less “real” as it’s aged, but the granddaddy of all reality shows hasn’t changed its format in any meaningful way. The fifth season (Miami) incorporated a cast job for the first time, and the twentieth season (Hollywood) bumped the show to hour-long episodes, but otherwise, The Real World is still just a group of strangers picked to live in a house and stop being polite, etc.
And as long as there are always new teenagers to watch it
and want to be on it to replace the generation that has just aged out,
the show will never lose an audience or its allure.
Premiered: May 31, 2000Seasons: 22Ever since Richard Hatch developed the Alliance strategy that is now
taken for granted on all reality competitions, Survivor has attempted to force players to develop a
new playbook by changing its rules (introducing immunity idols, Exile Island, and Redemption Island) and its starting matchups (old vs.
young, male vs. female, race vs. race, all-star heroes vs. villains).
However, no new twist can change the fact that Survivor is inherently a numbers game, and so
alliances will always be the smart play. The twist du jour rarely
determines how good a season is: Rather, that all depends on how smart
the players are and how many times they dramatically flip and change
alliances. And that hasn’t changed since season one.
Premiered: March 25, 2002 (and January 8, 2003)Seasons: A combined 22; 15 Bachelors and 7 BacheloretteWill you accept this rose? And remain almost exactly the same in format (and archetypes), forever? The Bachelor has never deviated from its structure, which led to the show’s downfall a few years ago but maybe also to its recent resurgence. The beats — practically down to the dialogue itself — remain identical year to year, so the only thing that really differentiates the seasons is the ratio of people you’re rooting for to people you’re rooting against. Too many villains and it’s too obviously trashy; too many nice people and the show just seems cruelly manipulative.
Photo: Craig Sjodin
Premiered: September 5, 2001Seasons: 18
TAR’s racing concept is unfuckwithable in most
ways, but over the seasons, options like Yield and U-Turn have slightly
altered the way the teams interact with one another. The biggest change
came in season eight, when the show featured teams of four-member families,
including young children, who mostly raced around the United States.
This was widely considered a disaster and was never spoken of again.
However, the fact that the Race itself defies alliances (beyond sharing
directions) has left it feeling repetitive after a decade and in need of
a shakeup. As host Phil Keoghan’s role is primarily just to explain
challenges (no Probstian inquisitions for him), there’s no way to affect
dynamics. The sights are exotic as always, but challenges now feel
familiar and so do the team archetypes: bitchy women, stubborn father
and willful daughter, attractive couple who call each other “babe” but
seem to hate each other.
Photo: ?2005 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved
Premiered: May 20, 2003
The judges have changed — a lot — and the production values have increased, but Top Model hasn’t altered its formatting or judging structure. The most important aspect of the show has been Tyra Banks, and she hasn’t changed a bit, except to maybe focus the show on herself more and more. The challenges feel tired, the drama weak imitations of previous seasons’ conflicts, and the contestants haven’t gotten better, really. Surely watching the previous sixteen cycles could have taught someone to “smize” by now, no?
Photo: ?UPN/Courtesy Everett Collection
Premiered: October 19, 2004
The show has changed hosts, changed trainers, and featured different kinds of teams and pairings, but the biggest change has been just how stretched out the episodes have become. They’re longer (two hours) but half of that seems stretched with repetitive filler. You don’t have to tease what’s coming up after the commercial and then just replay that exact moment when you come back from commercial, Biggest Loser! (And the product placements have gotten out of hand.)
Premiered: July 5, 2000Seasons: 13
completely changed up its rules in its second
season following a mesmerizingly dull first season: The show got rid of
viewer votes and instead had the houseguests evict one another.
Subsequent seasons had individual twists, like houseguests having secret
preexisting connections or one person being the “saboteur” who would be
clandestinely undermining everyone (the
saboteur got evicted
in week one — ha!). And occasionally new
strategies have been introduced that have become staples, like the
backdoor eviction. But the steady presence of the softball-questioning
Chenbot and dime-store challenges speaks to the fact that no matter what
unexpected curveball the producers throw out, Big
will always at heart just be three hours a week of
people screaming at each other and lying. Which can still work, but is
totally dependent on good casting, something that has been in short
supply lately. This season is half-stocked with that aging reality standby:
returning “all-stars,” to the detriment of the show. The mix of old and new made for an instant schism and, therefore, set alliances, negating the fun of watching players scramble to
make snap-decision BFFs and then slowly realize that they actually hate
Photo: CLIFF LIPSON/?2008 CBS BROADCASTING INC.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Premiered: June 1, 2005
Seasons: 12The changes on DWtS only come with season-to-season casting, not with the nuts-and-bolts of the show: think Kristi Yamaguchi vs. Kirstie Alley. They’re different — oh boy, are they — but the show itself is the same. The show’s absurdity has never faltered, but weak casts (particularly “stars” audiences have simply never heard of) make for weak seasons, just as the converse is true. As long as the casting department can keep finding professional athletes, geriatric sitcom hall-of-famers, and cherubic Disney Channel alumni, it could go on forever.
Photo: CAROL KAELSON/? 2007 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. NO ARCHIVE. NO RESALE.
Premiered: January 8, 2004
The celebrity incarnation of Donald Trump’s competitive commercialism series was supposed to be a onetime thing, but the show has completely ditched its regular-people option after one last ratings-deficient season. Celebrity Apprentice remains unfailingly committed to loudmouths and artificial animosity, which in a lot of ways are what defined the high points of original Apprentice, too. But now it’s being done by professional loudmouths, which gives it a bump.
Photo: Justin Stephens
Premiered: June 11, 2002
Season to season, the show has varied the parameters of its mentor roles, sometimes putting that week’s coach behind the judging table and sometimes not, and the number of audition episodes has oscillated over the years. But more than any other reality contest show, Idol has been defined by its judges. When Kara DioGuardi joined the panel in season eight, the chemistry was discomfitingly altered, and Paula Abdul’s exit threw the show even further off-kilter. Simon Cowell’s exit following season nine left Idol as a different show completely, this time one totally devoid of any form of negative criticism whatsoever. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler stopped the downward ratings slide, but minus Cowell, Idol felt like a different show. When X Factor debuts with Simon and Paula, will Idol viewers flock back to their onetime king (and queen)? Or will Idol’s cheerier panel keep the show on top? Likely the former.
Premiered: May 30, 2005
When a show is based around Gordon Ramsay screaming obscenities at sweat-drenched peons, can anyone really change the formula? The show hasn’t changed an iota, and viewers seem perfectly content to gobble down Ramsay’s verbal abuse. Plus, who could ever get tired of the way British people say “risotto”? It’s not as glamorous as Top Chef, but Hell’s seems content to just stick to its recipe for (sort of) success and seems no worse off for it.
Premiered: December 4, 2004Seasons: Just starting its 9thDespite changing networks and expanding to 90-minute installments, Runway still feels like Runway — well, when the right judges are in their chairs. Without Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, episodes (and seasons) lost some of their punch, and if there’s anything to be learned from the other veterans who’re still around, it’s this: Stick with what works, but don’t be afraid to try a little something new once in a while, as long as that twist raises the stakes somehow.