Viva La Voice

Even as American Idol loses its edge, America’s still falling for the song-and-dance routine

What have we learned so far? Now 12 years later — and after completing the fall part of the 2011-2012 season — it is tougher than ever for reality TV programs to capture viewers’ interest. As with all of TV — broadcast in particular — reality is subject to viewer fatigue and erosion, possibly because of an oversupply. Many top reality TV shows tend to suffer declining viewership.
Despite this, reality TV continues to grow with a plethora of variations — including singing, dancing, performing, survival and sports competition; straight-head game shows; as well hoarding, celebrity-focused lifestyle, dating, marriage, modeling, design, hair styling, pawn dealers, deep-sea lobster fishing, business, fitness/health and a slew of cooking competition shows.
And more keep coming.

“We are not sitting around scratching our heads looking for sources of inspiration,” says Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late-night programming of NBC Universal Television. “We hear dozens of pitches. The issues are to find novelty and differentiation.”

Reality television’s original business tease was that it is cheap to produce — helped by lucrative in-show branded entertainment deals for consumer marketing companies. Also, the pluses are these shows have a quick start-up time. The downside? Networks can go through ideas quickly, and even the best have little library value. All this continues as reality programming begins another decade.

Since 2004, the king of all reality TV — and all TV series — continues to be Fox’s American Idol. But now in its 11th season, Idol seems to be showing its age. During the first episodes of the just-started new season, Idol was down a big 20 percent to 25 percent in ratings from episodes of a year before.

Brighter news from cable shows is that reality is increasingly earning big marks — like MTV’s Jersey Shore, as well as big numbers for History’s Pawn Stars, which has rocketed the network up the cable ranks.

Here’s how some of the biggest shows are faring:


Though ratings have dipped in recent years, national TV advertisers continue to flock to American Idol.

Now pulling in 18.5 million viewers so far — down from its 20-million plus level — Gary Carr, senior vice president and executive director of national television for media buying agency Targetcast tcm, says the show is still way ahead of other network TV shows in terms of pulling in big, consistent audiences, still a major draw for TV marketers looking to make a impact.

In the early years many advertisers placed reality on a lesser quality level — and lower price level —  than scripted shows. Much of that disparity has disappeared. For example, according to Advertising Age, pricing for a 30-second TV commercial in Idol is averaging $468,100 on Thursday night and $502,900 on Wednesdays. Only NBC’s Sunday Night Football in primetime grabs a higher number — $512,367.

Last year — season 10 — was the first year since season five (2005) that Idol’s overall audience increased, a rarity for any TV show of its age. In 2011, Idol averaged 23 million viewers versus 22.5 million in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the median age of Idol has increased each season — now 47.4 years old versus 31.9 years old in 2002. Idol, because it is getting older, lost some of its key 18-49 viewer dominance — at a 7.5 rating average in 2011 among 18-49 viewers, down from 8.0 in 2010.

While some suggest viewer fatigue of reality singing shows, Fox launched a new singing competition show, The X Factor, which did generally well — a 3.7 rating among the 18-49 crowd — though a bit below super-high expectations. “It was pretty robust for a first year show,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate director of research for media agency Horizon Media.


Versus its network competitors, CBS continues to get steady returns from just a few reality shows — longtime franchises Survivor, Amazing Race and Big Brother.

Unlike other networks, you won’t find multiple five-episode or 10-episode limited run reality shows at CBS, or expanded two-hour versions.  “We don’t have the room to run two hours,” says Jennifer Bresnan, executive vice president of alternative programming for CBS Entertainment. “When you run longer, you run the risk of watering it down. Our No. 1 priority is to protect the brands.”

In 2010, CBS made a rare move, adding a new reality effort Undercover Boss on Sunday night — soon to move to Fridays. Though down from its first season, Boss averaged a still-solid 3.4 rating among 18-49’ers in 2011. Earlier Sunday evening at 8 p.m. has been a longtime spot for Amazing Race, which continues to post solid numbers. Its most recent edition earned a 2.9 rating among 18-49’ers and 10.2 million.

For 21 seasons, Survivor has been on Thursday night at 8 p.m. Then a year ago it moved to Wednesday at 8 p.m. in part to get out of the way of Fox’s American Idol — but primarily to make way for growing comedy The Big Bang Theory, which moved from Mondays.

Still, Survivor flourishes.

For its just completed fall 2011 season, the 23rd edition, Survivor: South Pacific, in its regular airings, averaged a 4.0 18-49 rating. Looking at all its episodes, the show did a 3.3 18-49 rating and had 11.1 million overall viewers. This was up from the way spring 2011’s Survivor: Redemption Island went, a 3.1 rating and 11.0 million viewers — somewhat of a rare accomplishment for a 12-year-old TV series.


Up to a year ago, NBC’s big in-season reality efforts have been with The Biggest Loser, Celebrity Apprentice, and its previous incarnation, The Apprentice. Then came The Voice in the spring of 2011, coming out of nowhere, scoring a big average 4.5 rating among 18-49 viewers for its initial 12 episodes’ season.

While The Voice has been a big boon — with the network counting heavily on it on Monday, along with Smash, a scripted-drama focusing on the inner workings of putting together a Broadway musical — NBC’s other reality efforts have been flagging with viewers.

This has come from over-use, especially multiple two-hour versions of shows, in particular Loser, which dipped to an average 2.2 rating among 18-49’ers in fall 2011 versus a 2.8 rating in spring 2011.

“This network has asked too much of it,” says NBC’s Paul Telegdy. “We are going to be a bit more judicious about how many hours it should run. Biggest Loser is No. 1 in category [health and fitness] and we need to keep it there.”

In the summer, NBC’s America’s Got Talent has been the ratings leader. Next year the controversial radio and media personality Howard Stern joins the judging panel, who Telegdy says, according to some surprising research, will bring in more women viewers.


In recent years, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars has — for the most part — been the second- or third-biggest rated reality show on network television, depending on its edition. It is still highly important to the network.

Now running two versions a year, the seven-year-old dance competition show dipped to a 3.7 rating among 18-49’ers and 18.3 million viewers overall for its fall 2011 edition. Stars had a 4.0 average rating among the 18-49 crowd in 2010 and 18.5 million overall viewers.

But don’t count Stars out. Being so celebrity-focused, and pushed by marketing spin from the off-line stories personalities generate, Stars can be a surprise from edition to edition. “As soon as the celebrities are announced, it’s always the first clue as how it will do,” says David Scardino, entertainment specialist for Santa Monica, Calif.-based media buying agency RPA.

ABC’s long-running The Bachelor, a mid-season reality effort, which comes on after Stars ends, still pulls in decent numbers, a 3.2 rating among the 18-49 group and some 10.1 million overall viewers in its most recent effort. The year before it had a 4.0 rating and 11.6 million viewers.  

The CW

America’s Next Top Model has been a big reason young women come to the network over the last few years. But recently it has seen a major decline, earning half the numbers it was getting in 2010 — now at 0.8 18-49 rating for its most recent 11th edition, down from a 1.5 in its eighth edition. Remodeled, about a modeling agency, has failed to gain traction.

Cable Networks

Just as in other programming areas, reality TV on cable continues to grow. In all, six of the top 20 shows for cable in 2011 were reality shows.

Perhaps the biggest news is that MTV’s Jersey Shore has risen to the top among viewers for all regularly scheduled cable TV series — not just reality shows. In 2011, it grew to average 9.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen’s live plus seven days worth of viewing data.

Though ratings were down for Shore at the start of season four of the show, it continues to be a strong performer, as does MTV’s Teen Mom franchise.

Three top-rated reality shows have given a surge to History (a channel part of A&E Networks group) — Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Swamp People. Pawn Stars has earned an average 7 million viewers, fifth most viewed cable show overall. American Pickers pulled in 5.8 million viewers, good for 10th place. Swamp People, took in 4.9 million viewers, 17th place.

As reality TV grows for many cable networks, their brand identity more closely follows their top efforts, including E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Bravo’s Real Housewives and Top Chef franchises, Lifetime’s Project Runway and Food Network’s Food Network Star.

Overall, Katz’s Bill Carroll believes reality TV will continue to flourish, especially when it comes to high-profile competition-oriented shows: “It is event programming — shows that have rooting interest for consumers continue to do the best.”

Next story loading loading..