LOS ANGELES: Falling ratings, canceled shows and lurid scandals: 2014 was a trying year for reality television in the United States, as American audiences wearied of producers chasing success by recycling the same old formats.
The question is, will 2015 be any better? Some experts say real life-based TV shows are facing a grim new reality.
For more than a decade, reality television shows bulldozed their way across the US ratings landscape unchecked, attracting bumper audiences year after year.
But the big-hitters of the genre such as “Survivor” and “American Idol” have shown serious signs of fatigue after years of dominance.
At the climax of its initial season in 2000, CBS’s hit “Survivor” drew an audience of over 50 million. That number had plunged to just 9.7 million by the time of the finale of the most recent season, according to industry journal Variety.
“American Idol” meanwhile slumped by nearly two-thirds over the last decade, from 28.8 million people watching the 2004 series finale to 10.5 million viewing the climax show in 2014, according to Forbes.com.
According to Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at the University of Syracuse, reality television has struggled to find another hit ratings blockbuster ever since “Dancing With The Stars” launched in 2005.
“The last hit franchise was maybe ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ Thompson told AFP.
Yet while the established shows have lost some of their luster, obvious candidates to replace them have yet to emerge.
The Fox network’s “Utopia”, which placed 15 people together in an isolated area with the aim of charting their attempts to build a community, flopped.
The show was cancelled after just two months of what had been envisioned as a year-long project. “Too complex, not fun to watch,” was Thompson’s verdict.
“Too derivative, not really innovating,” was the opinion of UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television professor Tom Nunan.
Meanwhile, some of the shows which have enjoyed ratings success in recent seasons found themselves battling scandal.
The hit show “Duck Dynasty” was left floundering after being plunged into controversy in late 2013 by homophobic remarks by one of the show’s stars, who was suspended before being reinstated.
Meanwhile “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” was canceled in October after it emerged one of the show’s stars was dating a convicted child molester.
Not even the normally reliable enticement of copious nudity was able to propel “Dating Naked” to ratings glory.
The show, an extreme version of “The Bachelor”, where contestants are devoid of clothing, achieved only a modest 826,000 viewers after debuting on the VH1 channel.
“You know a genre’s in trouble when hot naked singles rubbing body paint on one another can’t draw a crowd,” remarked Entertainment Weekly.
Fewer reality TV shows are making it to air: according to the LA Times, a total of 13 hours per week were devoted to them in last fall’s season on the major networks, compared to 20 hours in 2011.
According to Nunan, the US reality TV genre has stalled because of a lack of creativity and over-reliance on importing foreign formats.
Executives “have lost their mojo so to speak when it comes to programming interesting reality television,” Nunan told AFP.
“They have to stop being so derivative — no more singing competition shows, we’ve had enough of this for now. They have to find other competitions and talents.
“The broadcast networks are looking for formats that have worked around the world — they forget that some of our best reality TV shows have been created here (in the US): ‘The Apprentice,’ ‘The Bachelor’, ‘The Amazing Race’.”
Producers also believe the genre needs to do more to adapt to the changing needs of audience members, offering competitions and interactive experiences across different platforms with an eye on younger viewers who increasingly consume their media through smartphones.
But for Robert Thompson, the reality show genre is far from dead, despite the slide in numbers of the best known programs.
“Anybody hoping the reality show will die, will die before the reality show,” he said.
But the LA Times warned: “Without a strong reality line-up, the already-sobering prospect for broadcasters can look downright perilous.”