Another take on reality TV

| Senior Cadenza Editor

(Courtesy of Fox Broadcasting)

Andie and Alex gave their opinions on the state of reality television a few weeks ago, but the discussion isn’t over. Their arguments opened something inside of me, something dark and repressed, like the first time I saw “The Proposal.” I thought I should share what I’ve found on the state of reality television.

From a ratings standpoint, reality shows are making executives happy, but maybe less happy than they did a few years ago. For example, “American Idol” is in its ninth season now, and ratings have steadily declined (albeit slowly) since their peak in 2007. The show is still the most-watched program on television (as an aside, this is a real testament to how popular “American Idol” was three years ago), but the rest of the Top 10 is populated by scripted shows, which was not the case just a few years ago, when “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” would scale the charts.

What is with the declining ratings? Was the reality show just a fad? It’s not that simple. Fads explode on the scene and disappear before you realize it. Reality shows have had lasting power. Look at “Survivor.” Yes, the ratings have slipped, but after 20 seasons (wowza), it’s clearly not ready to kick the bucket. CBS had so much faith in “Undercover Boss” that the network aired the pilot after the Super Bowl, a slot usually reserved for huge shows that can pick up amazing ratings. It did, well, not great.

Are reality shows any worse than they were a couple of years ago? It doesn’t look like it. “American Idol” finally replaced the ditsy and, honestly, unhelpful Paula Abdul with a smattering of guest hosts. The move has been successful, and it was a long time coming. “Survivor” is sort of like Old Faithful—never going to change, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unless you don’t like “Survivor.”

I think the explanation for the declining ratings lies in how similar every reality show is to each other. Any scripted show that lasts a few seasons will have its peak, followed by a decline. The thing with reality show competitions is that they all started to come on at the same time, and most of them follow the same competition-on-a-stage, three-or-four-judges, one-of-them-British format. The genre has basically repeated itself dozens of times, so there really aren’t five different reality shows a week as much as there are five copies of the same show. They were similar enough to produce a widespread peak, and now they’re still similar enough to produce a widespread decline.

To be clear, I don’t think that the reality show will die anytime soon. When “American Idol” is over, “The X Factor” will take over, and when that ends, “You’ve Got the Goods” will reign, and things should go on like this for some time.