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Checking the Vital Signs of Reality TV’s Oldest Shows

America’s Next Top Model Photo: Chris Frawley/?2012 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

The modern era of reality TV began twelve years ago this summer, when Survivor debuted right after Memorial Day and instantly became a pop-culture phenomenon. Its first episode brought a healthy 15 million viewers, and when season one wrapped up three months later, more than 52 million folks were glued to their sets for the finale. A slew of unscripted shows followed in Survivor’s wake; most lasted a few seasons and then burned out. But some members of the reality tribe’s torches have proved unsnuffable, and they’ve been soldiering on for years and still draw a crowd. Vulture decided to check in on these unscripted warhorses, defined by us as any post-Survivor show that has lasted ten or more cycles, including all-star editions. (Sorry, Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef: At nine seasons each, you’re tasty, but not crusty enough. And we didn’t include The Celebrity Apprentice, since its “all-star” version is really its own, weird thing, as opposed to a special version of the original.) Which stalwarts are weakening? Which will outlive us all? Can anything short of Los Angeles crashing into the ocean stop Big Brother?

On the air since: 2000 Current cycle: 24 Season one audience: 28.3 million Year-ago audience: 12.6 million (For all twice-a-year shows, we will be comparing the current spring run to last spring’s run, not the immediately preceding fall run.) Current audience: 11.6 million Legacy: The granddaddy of modern reality. Helped make CBS the No. 1 network and turned the network into a force on Thursdays during the first part of this century. Gave Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst their careers. Where it stands: Remarkably true to its name, Survivor remains a key part of the CBS arsenal. A move back to Wednesdays (its original time slot) in fall 2010 could’ve spelled doom, but instead, the show has become a midweek anchor for the Eye, holding its own against American Idol and generally walloping ABC’s comedies and The Biggest Loser. Prognosis: It’s currently renewed through its 26th edition, with two seasons booked for next year, though it’s possible that if Probst’s upcoming daytime talk show takes off, he may only have time to do one season per year after that. (He’s the rare reality host without whom it’s hard to imagine a show continuing.) Cutting back to once a year could also help extend the show’s life, as it will seem like more of an event. At this point, however, Survivor’s strong enough to warrant its year-round status.  Photo: CBS/????2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.
On the air since: 2002 Current cycle: 16 Season one audience: 10.7 million Year-ago audience: 10.8 million Current audience: 8.9 million Legacy: Invented the modern dating reality show format. Spawned countless imitators, most of which have faded away. Provided endless fodder for tabloid magazines, which turned the staged relationships of the show’s contestants into countless stories. Recently prompted a lawsuit from African-American men upset that there’s never been a Black-chelor. Where it stands: After audiences sank significantly, ABC made the smart choice to limit the show to one cycle per season, saving it for a January debut starting in 2009 (and airing spinoff The Bachelorette in the summer). This resulted in stronger ratings overall and allowed ABC to establish a soapy stranglehold on Mondays. However, numbers have slipped this spring: It’s down about 20 percent over last year. Having to face off against NBC’s relatively strong The Voice hasn’t helped matters much. Prognosis: With no other network or cable dating shows commanding nearly as many viewers, there’s no reason The Bachelor can’t keep handing out roses for as long as gardeners keep growing them. Yes, ratings have slipped, but that’s happened to most shows this spring, so it’s all relative, and this is still a cheap property for the network (though, owing to age and producer Mike Fleiss’s lucrative production deal, it’s not that cheap). There’s nothing formal yet in terms of a renewal for 2013, but the show will be back. If ABC manages to have a really good development season and suddenly needs real estate on Mondays, it’s possible The Bachelor could shift to summer in a year or two. In the meantime, ABC could probably boost buzz (and settle a lawsuit) by finally diversifying the ranks of the Bachelor brotherhood. Photo: Nick Ray/?? 2012 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
On the air since: 2005 Current cycle: 14 Season one audience: 16.8 million Year-ago audience: 22 million Current audience: 18.2 million Legacy: Made ballroom dancing hip (at least for a minute). Gave B-list celebrities a classy way to revive their careers instead of humiliating themselves on a VH1 celebreality train wreck. Supplied ABC with a much-needed ratings boost early in its run, when the network literally had no successful sitcoms on its schedule. Turned lead-out Castle into a solid success. Where it stands: ABC has never really replaced the eyeballs it lost when Monday Night Football decamped to ESPN, but thanks to DWTS, the network still has a populist success to kick-start the beginning of its weekly schedule. DWTS has always appealed to older viewers, and among those under 50, it’s still a hit. But younger folks have been disappearing rapidly this year: While ratings are down 19 percent among all viewers, they’re off by a whopping 34 percent with those under 50. A big part of this, of course is casting: The lack of a Bristol Palin or even a Chaz Bono makes a big difference. Prognosis: With more than 18 million viewers watching each week, ABC isn’t going to stop Dancing anytime soon. The show’s format means every cycle brings an opportunity to invite more interesting names, and if DWTS can still do well even with a boring cast like this spring’s roster, it can survive for years to come. But like Survivor, we wonder if ABC might ultimately try to make do with just one cycle per year, making the show an event once more. Photo: Adam Taylor/?? 2012 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
On the air since: 2003 Current cycle: 18 Season one audience: 3.7 million Year ago audience: 2.6 million Current audience: 1.6 million Legacy: Pumped life into UPN after Buffy, the Vampire Slayer departed. Helped build and launch the CW network. Transformed Tyra Banks from supermodel to TV star and resulted in her brief career as a talk-show host. Where it stands: After this season launched to record-low ratings (barely one million viewers watched the premiere the night it aired), changes started taking place. Banks announced that all of her on-air comrades would be leaving the show next cycle, a sign that CW execs either want a creative reboot or are trying to save money on the show. The show has also lost virtually all of its buzz: You’re more likely to hear folks talking on Twitter about RuPaul’s Drag Race than Top Model. Prognosis: The CW has already renewed the show for one more cycle. The cast changes will bring down the cost of production, but unless they result in a ratings surge, Top Model seems ready to sashay off the runway and into the history books.
On the air since: 2002 Current cycle: 11 Season one audience: 12.7 million Year-ago audience: 26 million Current audience: 20 million Legacy: The show that delayed the decline of broadcast TV by at least a decade. Turned Fox into TV’s No. 1 network among viewers under 50. Made Simon Cowell a superstar and briefly revived the career of Paula Abdul. Launched dozens of talent competition imitators, including Cowell’s own The X Factor and America’s Got Talent. Introduced or popularized words such as pitchy and dawg. Oh, and it launched more true stars (including Grammy and Oscar winners) than virtually all other reality shows combined. Where it stands: It took ten years, but 2012 is the Year American Idol Became Human. Execs at rival networks have for years been praying for and predicting the show’s demise, but no matter what others threw at it, Idol remained untouchable. It even survived its first season sans Simon. That changed this year, as Idol has lost about 25 percent of its audience from last season. Early episodes (always among Idol’s best rated) took a big year-to-year hit, but were still drawing 20 million or so viewers. The declines have since stabilized, but because the show always loses some steam as the weather heats up, in recent weeks results shows have averaged under 15 million viewers (performance shows are still averaging around 17 million). It’s also way down compared to its peak, in season six, when the show averaged a whopping 30 million viewers most nights. The combination of time, competition from NBC’s The Voice (the shows air on different nights, but serve a similar need), and Simon Cowell’s decision to launch The X Factor on Fox all helped diminish Idol’s dominance. But guess what: Despite some late-winter chatter suggesting NBC’s The Voice had emerged as the hot new singing show, when the season ends later this month, Idol will remain the more popular show (unless you count January’s special post–Super Bowl edition of The Voice, which we don’t). Idol is also still a top five show in viewers and key demos, and it’s by far the biggest show on Fox’s schedule. It may not be the Death Star anymore, but Idol is still a power player. Prognosis: A given to return next season, there’s no way Idol won’t remain strong enough to last at least two more years. After that, a lot will depend on how The X Factor is doing (or whether it lasts beyond next fall’s season two) and whether The Voice manages to survive its transition to fall. Idol is also a very expensive show to produce, thanks to its age and high talent costs. At some point, Fox may decide to rest Idol and reboot. But that day is not yet nigh.
On the air since: 2001 Current cycle: 20 Season one audience: 8.8 million Year-ago audience: 10.3 million   Current audience: 10.2 million Legacy: The critical darling. The reality show even reality-TV haters can safely admit to watching. Virtually owns the Emmy for competitive reality show. Took reality TV on the road. Never a ratings monster — indeed, iffy ratings early on prompted rumors of cancellation — but has been a consistent performer throughout its eleven-year run. Where it stands: Like its lead-in 60 Minutes, Amazing Race has become a Sunday staple for CBS. There’s nothing flashy about its performance, but its stability is stunning. Take a look at the numbers above: Race attracted just under 9 million viewers in its inaugural run. It struggled a bit in its first few seasons, only breaking 10 million viewers during one of its first four cyles. But after getting a bump from Big Brother during the summer of 2004, the show has lured between 10 and 12 million viewers almost every cycle since. That’s … amazing. Prognosis: As of now, it’s been renewed for at least one more cycle next season. Converting to HD a few seasons ago definitely made the show a bit more compelling, and it’s clear the show has kept a core audience, or perhaps brought in new viewers over the years curious to check out the show that keeps getting the Emmy (it’s won the reality competition race eight out of the nine years that the award has existed). The show has shown some signs of desperation, synergistically casting popular or infamous alumni from CBS’s other reality shows. (A celebrity edition seems inevitable, though it is destined to be D-list, because who else has the time to run around the world? No offense, Mike White!) And the fact that producers have refused to alter the core format — same yelling/hugging, different airport — has caused more than a few longtime fans to grow tired of the Race. That said, maybe tweaking the formula is out of the question: Remember the family edition?
On the air since: 2004     Current cycle: Cycle 11 debuts later this year Season one audience: Roughly 1.5 million Most recent audience: 2.9 million (Fall 2011) Legacy: Along with The Amazing Race and Survivor, it’s one of the rare reality shows that has generated nearly equal amounts critical acclaim and audience acceptance. Brought the fashion world to Main Street. Made Tim Gunn a household face. Spawned countless riffs on “Make it work.” Along with Queer Eye, helped transform Bravo from sleepy cultural net to pop-culture powerhouse. Led to nasty war between NBC Universal (Bravo’s owner) and producer Harvey Weinstein after Weinstein sold the show to Lifetime. Provided a good promo platform for Lifetime to hype then-nascent dramedy Drop Dead Diva. Where it stands: A solid player for Lifetime, Runway nonetheless failed to be the game-changer the network might have hoped. After debuting on Lifetime with 4.2 million viewers in 2009, it soon saw ratings decline by double digits (particularly among younger women). Subsequent seasons have been all over the map, with some episodes of the recent All-Star edition generating fewer than 2 million viewers and last summer’s regular edition often averaging around 3 million viewers. Given how much more intense cable competition has become, these are not awful numbers. But rather than transform Runway, the show instead seems to have seen its buzz and hip factor evaporate within the decidedly mainstream bubble that is Lifetime. Life expectancy: Another cycle has already been ordered. Assuming Weinstein is no longer charging Lifetime the arm-and-leg rates he forced the network to shell out to land Runway, it seems likely the franchise should survive in some form for at least two or three more years. Soon, however, it might be time to blow up the show’s format and reinvent it. Is it too much to hope that Bravo might buy it back and reboot?
On the air since: 2004 Current cycle: 13 Season one audience: 10.3 million Year-ago audience: 8.5 million Current audience: 7.1 million Legacy: Most successful makeover show ever on network TV. For a couple of years, one of the few shows on NBC with any pulse at all. Briefly made Jillian Michaels a star. Where it stands: This week’s season finale was the least-watched capper in the franchise’s history, down 30 percent from a year ago. Given the wreckage of NBC’s prime-time schedule, Loser is still a relative winner in the younger demo, often outperforming much of the network’s schedule. Expanding it to two hours during the 2007—08 season ago hurt the show’s storytelling and may have chased away audiences. But the show still has a little Nielsen heft left. Prognosis: If NBC, as expected, launches a fall edition of The Voice, it seems certain the network will either save Loser for midseason or shrink it to an hour. And if NBC finds success with scripted programming, it’s easy to see Loser shifting to once a year or maybe even becoming a summer show. However, as long as NBC has major holes with scripted fare, it’s hard to not see this show surviving in some form for at least a few years to come, even if it’s on Friday nights.
On the air since: 2000 Current cycle: 14 (begins in July) Season one audience: 9.1 million Year-ago audience: 8.3 million Legacy: The show critics love to hate. Guilty pleasure for millions of addicts unable to walk away. Gave the world the Chenbot. Where it stands: As viewership for other network summer programming keeps shrinking, CBS’s summer tentpole remains amazingly steady and looks bigger each year compared to its competition. The network gives very little promotional time or budget to the show (winners who devote three months to living in this house and starring in three weekly hours of prime-time programming get a paltry $500,000 prize), but last summer, it almost always won its time slots with viewers under 50. It hardly ever generates buzz outside of its core circle of fans, but CBS couldn’t care less: It generates solid tune-in on a dirt-cheap budget, thus adding millions to the Eye’s bottom line. Prognosis: For the first time in a dozen years, Big Brother has some real competition in the wired house reality show genre. ABC just announced it is launching something called The Glass House on June 18 (contestants live under constant surveillance in a plush house and hope to win an even stingier $250,000 in cash). It will only air once per week (for now), so it’s unlikely to make much of a dent in the loyal Big Bro followers, but BB is showing its age. CBS has stubbornly refused to let producers do much tweaking to the format over the years: While there are always “expect the unexpected” twists, almost everything about the show has remained constant, from the musical cues to just about everything that comes out of Chen’s glittery mouth. The Eye annually refuses to give the show a big promotional push, perhaps assuming that everyone who would be interested in this kind of thing is already watching, and it’s hopeless to try to win over anyone who isn’t already hooked. So when the show’s dastardly hypnotic hold is broken with longtime fans who suddenly realize they’ve heard all the cries of “It’s on!” that one pair of ears can tolerate, there will likely be no new viewers coming in to replace them. Considering that CBS seems to pretend this show isn’t squatting in the middle of their summer schedule, they will likely be quick to sever ties. That said — sorry, crumbling society! — all signs point to BB hanging tough for years to come. Photo: CLIFF LIPSON/©2011 CBS BROADCASTING INC. All Rights Reserved.
The Vital Signs of Reality TV’s Oldest Shows