Network television ratings have been down, across the board, for years now. CBS celebrated the year as the number one network on television, and it’s biggest feat was that it was able to maintain the same ratings as last year, while everything else continued to fall. I wouldn’t expect this trend to end anytime soon, at least until the networks figure out how to successfully emulate cable programming, which has seen a steady rise (three of the highest rated shows on television, now, are on cable: The Walking Dead, Duck Dynasty, and Game of Thrones).
What’s most telling, however, is that it’s not just the scripted programming that’s falling. Reality television — once a huge cash cow for the networks — has seen a precipitous fall in the last few years, and leading the way is the once dominant show in all of television, American Idol, which has seen its steady ratings erosion crater this year, as it continued to tinker with its roster of judges (and it looks like none of the existing judges will return next year). See those two women up there in the header? They were this year’s finalist. I could not tell you what their names are.
Reality competition fatigue has finally set in. They’ve churned through all the D-level celebrities (many of whom are celebrities by virtue of their own reality shows), and viewers have finally just stopped caring. It’s the same thing year after year, and the stakes are less and less significant. American Idol hasn’t delivered a mainstream pop star in years. Does anyone from The Voice go on to mainstream success? Donald Trump has alienated EVERYONE. And does anyone care about some 90s teen star performing well in a dance competition? The reality competitions no longer have any star-making potential, and shows like Amazing Race and Survivor actually become less compelling the closer they get to their finales.
Survivor really kicked off the reality competition trend way back in 2001, and it began to slowly fade in the mid aughts, as the sheer number of reality competitions began to take its toll, as the singing competitions all began to cannibalize each other, and the talent involved in these shows began to dilute. Plus, viewers just got tired of them, especially with the incessant product placement. They’re not programming; increasingly, reality shows have simply become elaborate hour-long ads with commercial breaks.
The point is: the reality craze has faded, and it continues to fade. There will come a day, in the not to distant future, where American Idol will cease to exist, where Survivor will spin its last cycle, and where Dancing with the Stars will be relegated to reruns on the Game Show Network. Reality competitions are not what people talk about anymore, and in an era of time-shifted television, reality competitions — which begin to lose their value the second after an episode airs — people just can’t be bothered anymore, not when there are White Walkers to contend with.
Take a look at the precipitous ratings drops over the last several years for some of the leading reality shows on network television.
Celebrity Apprentice: 5.3 million for the season finale, less than half the 11 million viewers the first Celebrity Appearance received.
American Idol: 14 million for the season finale, down from a series high in 2003 of 38 million.
Dancing with the Star: 13.8 million for the season finale, down from 25 million just three years ago.
Survivor: 8.3 million for the season finale, down from 36 million in its first season.
Splash: 5.2 million
The Voice: 14.6 million viewers for the most recent episode (up from 12.6 million in its first season premiere).
The Bachelor: 10.8 million viewers for March’s season finale, down from 15 million in 2010.
The Amazing Race: 9.3 million viewers for this year’s season finale, a steady decline from its high, in season seven, of 13 million.
X-Factor: 12 million for last year’s season finale; 9 million for this year’s season finale.