Reality shows no longer spawn the same massive ratings — or stupid debates and catchphrases as they once did
(Editor's note: Corrects that "Amazing Race" won reality Emmy again in 2011, updates with "Amazing Race" ratings.)
Are viewers tired of accepting reality shows' roses?
Monday night's worst-ever ratings for a "Bachelor" finale reflect a troubling trend for network execs: Viewers are no longer as loyal as they once were to aging reality tentpoles.
Before Monday's finale, "The Bachelor" averaged a 2.9 rating in the crucial 18-49 demographic – down 15 percent from last year's average at that point. And the ABC series has slid less than some other reality shows.
Even reality franchises that are still drawing big audiences seem to have fallen off the cultural grid. Gone are the days when catchphrases like "voted off the island" became late-night punchlines.
As the reality landscape has become increasingly niche-oriented, with cable competitors creating battles over fashion design, hair styling and being the best white rapper, no single show still seems to capture national attention the way "Idol," "Survivor" and other shows once could.
"Dancing With the Stars" inflamed extreme conservatives by chosing the transgendered Chaz Bono as a contestant last cycle, but the controversy didn't spark nearly as much outrage as when Bristol Palin made it into the final three in 2010.
CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” once a sure thing for best reality competition Emmy, is no longer a lock: Bravo’s “Top Chef” took the trophy away from the older franchise in 2010, though "Amazing Race" recaptured it last year.
Networks still love reality competitions as a cheap, reliable source of ratings, especially as expensive, scripted dramas continue to struggle. Older competitions like "American Idol" and "Survivor" still draw strong ratings. But the decade-old "Bachelor" and 7-year-old "Dancing With the Stars" are showing their age.
One cause of the decline? Audiences' overfamiliarity with the formulas and twists leaves less room for them to be surprised. An ousted bachelor returning to "The Bachelorette" now feels inevitable.
Meanwhile, the most successful reality show of the last decade, "American Idol," has been punished for its success with a rash of imitators.
The No. 1-rated show for the last eight seasons is down 28 percent on Wednesday nights and 25 percent on Thursdays. It still scores an enviable 6.7 and 6.2, respectively, on those nights. It is the second highest rated show on the air — outstanding for a series in its eleventh season.
But a glutted market for singing competitions seems to have taken its toll. NBC's "The Voice," which debuted last year, is the top-rated show this season. Fox's "X Factor," which aired in the fall, earned roughly half the typical ratings for "Idol." And this summer ABC will debut "Duets," which will borrow inaugural "Idol" contestant Kelly Clarkson as its host.
Though it doesn't get "Idol" ratings, "Survivor" does seem to have an Immunity Idol from cancellation – it's still going strong after 12 years. CBS's reality competition helped spawn all the rest.
The last go-round, "Survivor: South Pacific" averaged a 4.0 rating and was the 21st highest-ranked show overall this season. It is also the fourth-highest rated reality show so far this season.
"Survivor: One World," the current cycle, averages a 3.2 and is currently the 43rd highest-rated show overall for the season. But "Survivor" ratings climb with finales.
The 11-year-old "Race" is also holding steady, through it draws lower numbers: Its current installment scores a 2.9 rating, up 4 percent in the demo compared to last spring's edition.
The fall cycle of "Dancing With the Stars," meanwhile, was down 22 percent for its first weekly airing – averaging a 3.6 – and 17 percent for its results show, which averaged a 3.3. The show returns Monday, and no one in its cast looks as likely as Palin or Bono to capture the national interest. (I admit to rooting for Jaleel White. But is there anything controversial about the former Steve Urkel?)
NBC's "The Voice," which debuted last year, provides hope that a new twist on the old formula – with the right cast and right execution — can pay off. So it isn't that it's impossible to create a new reality giant.
But it's hard to say how much mileage remains on the older ones. "Idol" managed last year to rebuild itself, adding new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez in place of Ellen DeGeneres, Kara DioGuardi and Simon Cowell. But the addition of "X Factor" to the Fox schedule — complete with two former "Idol" judges — reduced its anticipation factor.
"The Bachelor," meanwhile, has cannibalized itself with not only "The Bachelorette" but "Bachelor Pad," which brings back previous contestants on both shows.