Changing face of television - Is reality TV losing its charm?

I’m A Celebrity may be back, but Ed Power says the reality format is a much diminished force in the face of a resurgence of quality drama

Changing face of television - Is reality TV losing its charm?

IS REALITY? I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! is back on UTV Ireland, but without the familiar fanfare.

And if the absence of hype is at least in part due to a rather more chilling reality spectacle across the Atlantic, the show’s return must also be evaluated in the context of a wider decline.

Welcome to a strange new world in which C-listers suffering for our amusement no longer guarantees stellar viewer numbers. Yes, we’re frightened too.

The figures make for chilling reading for television executives. Viewing figures for the opening episode of I’m A Celeb were up on last year, but it is highly unlikely to have the impact of the early series.

Meanwhile, X Factor’s popularity has continued to tank, despite the shuffling-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic return of Louis Walsh as judge. Spare a thought also for the Voice Of Ireland, cancelled after five seasons during which it never came close to minting a new pop star (and with ratings tumbling 100,000 in its final run).

We may be getting an Irish version of Strictly Come Dancing to replace it, but for most reality TV stars, winter truly is coming.

Within the industry it has been accepted for some time that the genre is in a slump. Scripted drama is the hot trend, with networks such as Netflix, HBO, Showtime and others presiding over the so-called “golden age” of television. Viewers’ tastes have transitioned from the ridiculous (Jersey Shore etc) to the sublime (Stranger Things). Reality is, for the moment at least, on the wrong side of television history.

“We’ve finally reached maturity,” a prominent insider at an American network told reporters in 2014. “We are in a down cycle. If anything, it’s surprising it took this long.”

As he says, the true shock may be that reality had such longevity in the first place. MTV’s The Real World debut in 1992; the original UK Big Brother aired in 2000. That’s a life time and a half in television. For reality to remain a force for so long must be considered an achievement in itself.

One issue is that reality is heavily dependent on gimmicks. On Pop Idol (2001 – 2003) the public voted for the chart-toppers of tomorrow. X Factor had the same format, only with Simon Cowell off the leash as moustache twirling evil judge. Then came The Voice, which added revolving chairs.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Got Talent opened the doors to dancing dogs, spoon players and failed comedians.There was a sense that, unless reality television constantly evolved, it risked collapsing under its own inherent ludicrousness.

However, after a decade and a half, the reservoir of half-decent ideas has run dry. The whiff of desperation has been particularly palpable in 2016, with shows such as Sex Box and Naked Attraction (both Channel 4) going to places previously unthinkable, with the former arranging for contestants to have intimate relations in a sealed pod with a studio audience eavesdropping and the latter featuring full frontal nudity.

Yet even as reality television plumbed the depths, the quality — and quantity — of scripted dramas has expanded exponentially. In the United States, the number of dramas and comedies has increased by 697 per cent since 2000.

Similar forces are at work here with RTÉ lavishing a record €6m on 1916 drama Rebellion (admittedly a mini-series so terrible all memories were immediately wiped from the nation’s collective unconscious).

Generally, and with the exception of the occasional calamity, the quality of scripted drama has come on in bounds too. When, for instance, X Factor launched in 2004, the show’s creator, Simon Cowell, didn’t have to worry about Netflix stealing audiences away or about potential viewers opting to instead catch up on Game of Thrones or losing themselves in re-runs of Breaking Bad.

“Before the rise of streaming, anyone looking for TV entertainment on a lazy Sunday might surf over to MTV or Discovery Channel and find herself sucked into a Jersey Shore or Deadliest Catch marathon,” New York magazine pointed out last year. “Networks ran those marathons to fill airtime, sure, but they were also designed to get audiences to discover — and get hooked on — their latest offering.”

Significantly, the new streaming giants have little interesting in reality. Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, has dismissed the format as irrelevant to the company’s business model.

“The kind of disposable nature of reality, basically doesn’t have much of a long shelf life,” he told Bloomberg. “It hasn’t been a great category for us.”

Meanwhile, Amazon Prime — still sadly unavailable in Ireland — started to phase out its reality content in 2014.

Even a gold-standard brand such as the Kardashians is displaying signs of fatigue. When in 2015 Keeping Up With The Kardashians returned in the US mere months after Kim’s marriage to Kanye West, just 2.4 million viewers tuned in, with ratings among the coveted 20 - 40 demographic especially weak.

If the Kardashians can no longer be relied upon for reality box office, something is surely amiss.

There are exceptions, it is true. The Great British Bake Off remains wildly beloved — or at least it did until the producers struck a deal that will see the franchise leave the BBC for Channel 4 (but without original presents Mel and Sue and judge Mary Berry, who immediately quit). Yet Bake Off is a phenomenon precisely because it has flourished as elsewhere the decline grows more pronounced.

This isn’t to say reality is quite on its death bed. RTÉ will for instance, be replacing The Voice with Dancing With The Stars (in the UK, Strictly Come Dancing continues to prove a robust ratings-winner).

But, as pointed out, these are very much exceptions — hold outs against an accelerating trend. So enjoy Ant’n’Dec’s jungle jaunts over the next several weeks.

Celebrity-baiting reality shows may soon be about as common as a Hillary Clinton voter in the American rustbelt.

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