Reality TV Fights Back Against Decline

The cancellation of “American Idol” was not exactly shocking, but it does signal the end of a certain era. Reality television is in decline on broadcast networks during their non-summer season. Yet this does not mean the end of reality TV. Sorry, those who love to drag out and wave around old, decomposing arguments.

Here's how the reality TV week will break down in the fall on the five broadcast networks:

Sundays: one hour, counting “America's Funniest Home Videos” at 7 p.m. on ABC, which I am only because it's there.
Mondays: four hours, with each ABC and NBC giving the 8 to 10 timeslot to a competition series.
Tuesdays: two hours, “The Voice”'s results show and “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris.
Wednesdays: one hour: “Survivor.”
Thursdays: zero hours.
Fridays, five hours, though one of those is “World's Funniest Fails,” and that barely qualifies as television.

That's 13 hours of unscripted television on broadcast networks this fall, five hours of which is on a single night. And that includes two hours of clip shows and one new variety show, which are unscripted but not the brand of reality television that broadcast fed on for years.

As to competitive reality series, there will be 10 hours and 7 shows. By comparison, there were 13 hours of reality TV last fall, including two a week of Fox's big swing and eventual miss “Utopia.”

Here's how all 13 unscripted hours break down:

CBS has just two hours of reality TV: “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.” Although the around-the-world series is aging and struggling creatively, “Survivor” remains so dominant a regular episode easily beat American Idol 14's finale.      
NBC has eight unscripted shows airing this summer. This fall, just two: “The Voice” and “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris.” Three hours.      
Fox has MasterChef Junior and World's Funniest on Friday nights, and that's it.
ABC has two hours in prime time, “Dancing with the Stars” on Mondays and “Shark Tank” on Fridays.  
The CW only has “America's Next Top Model.”

This seems bleak for the genre. It's not. The number of hours of reality TV in prime-time on broadcast TV may be in decline, and the lifespan of a reality TV executive at a broadcast network may be short, but reality television is not going anywhere.

First, just look at summer, where I stopped counting at 30 hours of unscripted TV, which includes brand-new game shows; three hours a week of “Big Brother”; and all kinds of returning shows, from “America's Got Talent” to “The Bachelorette.”

Second, networks have ordered more shows than are on their fall schedules. For example, ABC renewed “Shark Tank” spin-off “Beyond the Tank” but it's not yet scheduled. NBC's renewed “The Biggest Loser” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” are likely to appear in the spring, as will ABC's “The Bachelor.”

Third, cable networks thrive with niche reality shows, broadcast struggles to find something to appeal to broad audiences that isn't bland–which, to be fair, is the same struggle they have with scripted series.

Finally, and most importantly, I attribute this shift to the industry's dysfunction. The success of “American Idol” didn't prompt other broadcast networks to try out-of-the-box shows, it led them to create “Idol” clones.” Only “The Voice” broke out, in part because it flipped the equation and put the attention on the judges instead of the singers.

This is not news, but the networks chase each other–and together chase the same thing–more than they chase creativity. That explains why there's now a flood of comic book-inspired series, and why “American Idol” is dying an early death instead of resting comfortably like “Survivor.” (Fox virtually competed against itself by launching and then sticking with “X Factor,” accelerating fatigue.)

The terrific part of this weird process is that, eventually, viewers get tired of whatever thing networks have doubled-down on. One network will try something new, it'll catch on, and a new wave will begin. That's what happened in the late 1990s that made way for reality TV, when broadcast networks were content pumping out “Friends” clones and viewers were starved for something different.

I won't let reality TV off the hook here. As a fan and a critic of reality television, I understand quite well how it is guilty of the same thing, and how much the genre has room to improve.

For an example, look to the “Duck Dynasty”s of the world. Broadcast networks have mostly stayed away from scripting reality shows, having real people try to act out things that non-writers have created. Cable, though, has overdosed on it, thanks in part to the success of “Duck Dynasty.” There's already been a backlash and we're now seeing a shift back to authenticity, but the industry chasing that type of reality show sent viewers back to scripted. Why watch badly acted “reality” when you can watch well-acted, well-written shows that don't lie about what they are?

Also, reality TV's maturity brought come a wider range of shows, so now we have a lot of crap on one end of the spectrum and some exceptional art on the other end. There is terrific, innovative reality television being produced. This spring alone gave us engaging and finely crafted narrative reality series such as HBO's “The Jinx” and Esquire's “The Runner-Up.”

Broadcast may have shifted its regular season focus away from reality TV for now, but once a network kicks that ball back to a new and interesting place, you can bet everyone else will follow.