Reality TV facing its own reality: a ratings slump
By Scott Collins
Just a few years ago, underemployed TV writers were complaining that reality programming was taking over their industry.
Now the scribes are having their revenge: Unscripted programming is mired in an unexpected slump.
Onetime smashes such as “Survivor” and “Dancing With the Stars” are drooping with age. Coca-Cola recently wrapped up its 13-year sponsorship of “American Idol” after Fox’s singing hit plummeted in the ratings last season. NBC’s own singing show, “The Voice,” saw its season finale drop nearly 10% this month.
And what’s worse, no new hits are taking their place.
Fox bet the farm early this season on “Utopia,” a voyeuristic series in which a group of isolated “pioneers” was observed trying to create a new society. Viewers yawned, and the network eventually canceled the program, for a loss that insiders pegged at more than $50 million. ABC drew disappointing results this summer with its gimmicky singing show “Rising Star.”
“Reality TV was supposed to be a long-term fix to the problems of television, but that optimism was misguided,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “Program executives overestimated the true value of the commodity and drove the genre into the ground.”
Even cable networks, a longtime proving ground for the genre, are seeing diminishing returns.
A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” ratings have plunged, even though they are still high by cable standards. TLC this fall quickly shelved its hit “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” after matriarch Mama June was accused of dating a sex offender, but viewership had already declined sharply. And this fall, AMC largely abandoned a three-year foray into unscripted programming, deciding to return its primary focus to its signature scripted series such as “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.”