Americans' appetite for reality TV may be getting sated. A year ago, the average reality program pulled in higher ratings than traditional dramas and sitcoms. Seeing an opportunity for higher profits, the networks eagerly embraced unscripted fare, which is less expensive to produce. This fall's schedule doubled its reality intake from 2003.
It looks like they overbooked.
Average ratings are down sharply among shows in the reality genre. Although traditional dramas and comedies are little changed from a year ago, they're way ahead of reality's performance. During the first eight weeks of this season, the average scripted show pulled a 3.3 rating among 18-49s. Unscripted programs trailed at 2.9. That's a reversal from last year, when the average rating for reality was 3.9 and scripted averaged 3.3 among 18-49s.
Last year, when there were half as many unscripted shows on the air, they had a built-in audience of viewers who tuned in to any show in that category, says Sam Armando, director of television research for Starcom Worldwide. Now there's so much to choose from, audiences are more discriminating. “It's not the genre of the show, it's the quality that brings them back,” Armando says. “Is the show worth watching?”
The networks, too, have developed selective tastes. They've been quick to pull poor performers and cancelled orders for several shows planned for this season. For example, earlier this month, Fox sacked The Partner, a reality competition of lawyers-to-be due to air in January. The series, in which law-school grads were to compete against each other for an entry-level job at a top law firm, had undergone months of preparation. Fox pulled the plug shortly before production was to begin.
Fox and production company Rocket Science Laboratories blame the onslaught of unscripted boardroom fare and say they will focus their mutual efforts on other unscripted material.
The experience is reminiscent of what happened after Who Wants To Be a Millionaire took off in 1999. ABC redesigned its schedule around the popular game show. Audiences got bored, and the show was scaled back. That was the peak of the first wave in the reality TV boom, says Joey Carson, CEO of Bunim/Murray Productions. His company is diversifying into scripted dramas after making a name for itself with such hits as The Real World and The Simple Life. “We're now on top of the second wave,” he says. “You'll see it taper off from what it is.”
Veering away from reality, Bunim/Murray is developing two scripted dramas—one about teenagers in Southern California, the other about the world of modeling. It's also working on several feature-length films. His company may need some scripted hits. Its newest effort, The Rebel Billionaire, debuted earlier this month to lower-than-expected ratings, pulling in a 2.3 rating/6 share among 18-49s. Americans aren't as seduced by the antics of the show's star, British billionaire Richard Branson, as they are by New York grandstander Donald Trump.
Billionaire is one of several reality shows on Fox, but the genre comprises 60% of the network's prime time schedule. Within that group, there is one clear hit: Nanny 911. The show averaged a 4.0/9 in its first two outings.
To illustrate the divide between scripted and unscripted shows, here's a breakdown of the three best and worst performers in each category. Average ratings and share among 18-49s for the first eight weeks of the season are in parentheses.
Apprentice 2 (7.7/19): It may not be as compelling without Omarosa kicking around the rest of the cast, but it's the best-performing reality show on TV and No. 4 overall on the ratings chart.
Survivor: Vanuatu (7.4/20): One of the classics of the reality genre, it has helped CBS beat up Joey and Will & Grace on Thursday nights.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (6.7/16): This show is recommended as one of the 10 best shows for family viewing by the Parents Television Council, which says, “This uplifting and inspiring program showcases charity and selflessness.”
Totally Outrageous Behavior (1.5/5): Got video of something you think is outrageous, shocking or unbelievable? Sell it to the producers of this Fox show. Call 888-862-TAPE. Dial quickly—before the show is cancelled.
World's Craziest Videos (1.5/5): Few bothered to watch what Fox promoted as “funny flubs and blunders” from TV shows around the globe.
The Benefactor (1.6/5): Mark Cuban played the Donald Trump role in this Apprentice wannabe. It was ABC's second-worst prime time performer during this period.
CSI (10.5/25): It's CSI. What else is there to say?
Desperate Housewives (9.6/22): The year's biggest freshman hit gets hotter and bolder every Sunday.
ER (8.2/21): This decade-old medical drama is NBC's highest-rated show.
What I Like About You (1.1/4): The WB show is in its third season. It may be its last.
The Mountain (1.1/3): The nicest thing you can say about this soap set at a ski resort is that it's filmed in high-def.
Jack & Bobby (1.1/2): Critics love this show; nobody else is watching.