Viewers binge on reality buffet
Full-season marathons reinvigorate repeats of unscripted fareIf reality TV is junk food, then the full-season daytime reality marathon has become the equivalent to a daylong, couch-bound Del Taco binge.
Networks increasingly are airing entire seasons of reality programming in large, seemingly indigestible chunks — morning-to-dusk stretches of "The Bachelor" on VH1, "Top Chef" on Bravo, "Rock of Love" on MTV.
The marathons have solved what once was considered one of the major drawbacks of the reality genre. Unscripted shows, went the mantra, have no repeat value. What's the point of watching "America's Next Top Model" after you already know who wins?
Turns out, encores do work, as long as fans don't have to wait for the next episode.
"You can start watching TV at 8 in the morning and follow Season 2 for 'Project Runway' all the way," says Andy Cohen, Bravo's senior vp programming and production. "It's exciting to watch the progression of creativity and excellence in a competition setting and makes for an amazing arc to follow in one afternoon."
During a marathon, a producer often gives permission for the network to cut off a show's credits, so a story rolls from one episode to the next.
"Marathoning is a great way to hook people," said Mark Cronin, exec producer of VH1's "I Love New York," "Flavor of Love" and others. "I've had people say to me, 'I got into your show in a marathon.' They start watching and they've seen three episodes before they know what happened."
Reality marathons typically air during daytime rather than primetime, on weekdays or weekends. Sometimes the ratings can be pretty decent.
On Bravo's "Real Housewives of New York City" marathon that aired May 27, the repeats boosted their Tuesday time periods by 98% in the adults 18-49 demographic.
But often reality marathons perform about on par with regular programming, which is nonetheless considered a network victory as reality shows were once considered next to useless after a season concludes.
"As the reality craze has worn on, it's developed its fan base — like disco, people either love it or hate it," TV historian Tim Brooks said. "Reality repeats are not a weekly habit kind of programming, but if you make it a Sunday or Saturday afternoon, you can at least sustain the audience they would likely get there anyway."
For programmers, the most effective use of a marathon is not to boost ratings but create excitement for the premiere of a show's new season.
"It's promotional in a sense because it drives viewers to a premiere," Cohen said. "You catch up on a whole season and you're so invested and hopped by time the premiere airs, it winds up being a full and satisfying viewing experience."
Interestingly, the biggest reality shows including "American Idol" and "Survivor" are not among the heavy cable marathon titles. Popular cable networks that air reality marathons skew heavily female and favor such soapy shows as "Bachelor" and "Rock of Love."
"The original burst of reality shows were focused on a contest and a winner and I think shows have shifted more to the process," Brooks said. "The majority of the viewers are female, so that's a home run for a sales department."
Reality binging continues a viewing phenom that began a few years ago. Fans of such serialized cliffhanger dramas as "24" and "Lost" caught up on entire seasons on DVD during the course of a day or two. But reality binges are driven by live viewing. Brooks said viewers often will come and go into a reality marathon throughout the day.
The next evolution in television binging could combine the live network marathon and serialized dramas. Fox plans to repeat the first season of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" beginning Aug. 10. The nine hours will air as a four-day marathon.