Competition-themed reality series have been among the few programs in the new millennium consistently able to draw the kind of viewer levels - in the 20 million to 30 million range - that would be
considered a "mass audience" by the standards held by broadcasters back in TV's halcyon days of the old millennium.
There is now a broad body of Nielsen-based evidence that
suggests the magic of the genre's elimination-themed formula isn't quite as effective as it was back in 2000, when Survivor
launched on CBS, or in 2002, American Idol
first season on Fox.
Indeed, the vanguard generation of reality shows ushered in by those two programs - while still productive - has begun to show its age. Even the powerful Idol, which is
perhaps as close to event television as it gets in the modern era, seems to have finally passed its prime, with season-to-date total-viewer numbers slipping below the mighty 30 million threshold the
series had surpassed.
Meanwhile, a number of Idol
's peers have seen their numbers tumble into a mortal realm that would have been considered far more fit for scripted comedies
and dramas than for "watercooler" unscripteds just a couple of years ago. The still popular Survivor
, for example, averaged just 14.36 million last season, while The Amazing
Race, Big Brother
and The Apprentice
now fall below the 10 million threshold.
Add to this the high-profile failings of two lavishly promoted unscripted projects last
season, Kid Nation
and the Mark Burnett-produced Pirate Master
, and it's clear that reality isn't quite what it used to be.