Summer's New Reality: TV Ratings Take a Hit
Failed experiments and aging hits define a season of broadcast disappointments.
For more than a decade, reality series have been the broadcast networks' summer savior. But this season, with rare exceptions, nearly all returning shows have seen dramatic declines, and almost every new effort has been a certifiable bomb.
And it's not the Olympics' fault. Although a handful of shows were affected by the 17 days of NBC's high-rated London Games coverage, the viewership drop-off started in May.
"There once was a time when it was an event to launch a reality show in summer," laments one network executive. "Then the networks started flooding the summer with reality, hoping to find the next hit and to try to keep the lights on. It wasn't an event anymore."
Audiences saw through ABC's The Glass House, a thinly veiled knockoff of Big Brother, despite free publicity from a CBS copycat lawsuit. Duets was touted as ABC's answer to The Voice, with such high-profile judges as Kelly Clarkson and Robin Thicke. But it wasn't in tune with audiences, averaging a measly 1.5 rating among the 18-to-49 demo. CBS' adapted Israeli dating format 3 was canceled after just two episodes.
"Reality is hard because it's very much more difficult now to find the shock of the new," ABC entertainment president Paul Lee told reporters during July's press tour. "I truly believe that it's a mature genre."
Viewer fatigue for long-running hits was apparent. "A lot of the shows that have been driving the summer ratings for broadcasters have been on a long time, and they have a lot of competition -- especially on cable, which ramps up every summer," suggests Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of research at Horizon Media.
NBC expected America's Got Talent to be boosted by the $15 million addition of judge Howard Stern. It's still a summer heavyweight, ranking at or near No. 1 among nonsports programs for eight of nine weeks before the Olympics, but viewership is down 11 percent from last summer among adults under 50.
Not helping Talent was its early premiere date, positioning the show at the tail end of the May sweep. It also clashed on Mondays with The Bachelorette, one of the few summer reality shows to improve its average ratings this year.
CBS stuck with July to premiere Big Brother, as it has since 2000, only to see a 14 percent decline among total households going into the Olympics (and 20 percent in the demo). After averaging a 3.0 rating among adults 18 to 49 last summer, Big Brother slipped to a 1.9 rating in the demo on its first Sunday opposite the London Games. It recovered to a 2.1 rating the following week.
CBS press rep Ed Harrison says the drop has little to do with Glass House. Big Brother suffers from comparisons with a strong 2011, when it attracted more than 8 million viewers a week. This season, that average has dropped to about 6.9 million.
Fox saw modest declines for the truncated run of So You Think You Can Dance, though it did regularly win Wednesdays among viewers under 50. Expanding to two nights was a boon for the third season of MasterChef. The Gordon Ramsay competition series was up double digits among young adults and in total viewers compared with last summer. Ramsay's latest, Hotel Hell, started slowly. Its Aug. 13 premiere earned it a 1.9 rating in the key demo. It's the strongest broadcast debut of the summer, topping NBC's soft Stars Earn Stripes premiere the same night (1.7), but it looks anemic next to other Ramsay offerings.
Perhaps scariest for networks: Younger viewers have seemed unwilling this summer to sample new shows. Audiences for CBS' pet-whisperer show Dogs in the City were the oldest for any network reality series this year, ABC's Fred Willard-hosted Trust Us With Your Life suffered from bad timing around his arrest, and Fox's dating series Take Me Out and The Choice failed to find ratings love.
Meanwhile, cable continues to dominate summer with scripted shows and high-profile debuts -- like History's record-breaking Hatfields & McCoys and TNT's strong Dallas reboot. But new reality ventures have not fared as well. MTV's Jersey Shore spinoff, Snooki & JWoww -- with a second season already ordered -- recently drew a limp 1.6 million viewers. TNT's ambitious reality competition The Great Escape, from Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and the creators of The Amazing Race, has been retaining less than half the audience of its Falling Skies lead-in.
"None of the networks this summer was able to come up with a game-changer," gripes a network executive. "We have to blame ourselves. Somebody's got to figure out a new variation. We've gone through game shows, dating shows, reality competition, zany physical shows, so what's next?"