'The Masked Singer' Leads Strong Showing for Reality TV to Start 2019

Unscripted series have impressed this year so far — even in delayed viewing.
Rick Rowell/ABC; Michael Becker/FOX; Vivian Zink/NBC

The Masked Singer is currently the top-rated new series of 2018-19 among adults 18-to-49, having exploded out of the gate on Fox. It's also not alone. The first two weeks of 2019 have seen five other unscripted shows on the broadcast networks launch to solid ratings after a fall season in which every show in the genre was down year-over-year.

The Masked Singer, based on a South Korean format, debuted Jan. 2 to a 3.0 rating among adults 18-to-49, the top unscripted series debut (excluding those that directly followed NFL games) since The X Factor in September 2011.

NBC's The Titan Games and America's Got Talent: The Champions each opened with a 1.8 rating, putting them among the top five unscripted debuts of the past five years. The Bachelor (1.5) premiered right in line with its previous season on ABC; Fox's 24 Hours to Hell and Back (1.2) began its second season with a series high; and Ellen DeGeneres' Ellen's Game of Games (1.5), though down a little from last season, led its Tuesday-night hour. Even the nearly 30-year-old America's Funniest Home Videos hit a one-year high with its Jan. 13 episode.

"Unscripted has always thrived [at midseason], but I think this is the first time we've seen everything work in the first few weeks," says Robert Mills, senior vp alternative at ABC. Fox's head of alternative, Rob Wade, tells THR that he had a suspicion The Masked Singer would pop when crewmembers told him they were trying to figure out who was behind the elaborate costumes.

"But honestly, I didn't think it would start this well," Wade says. "And certainly what's really impressed me about it is the delayed viewing, which for unscripted shows is unheard of."

The series premiere grew by 1.2 ratings points in adults 18-to-49 and 3.6 million viewers over seven days, the biggest gains ever for an unscripted series debut. Episode two is on a similar trajectory, adding a full point to its demo rating and 2.9 million viewers with three days of playback.

Novel twists on old formats have helped The Masked Singer and The Titan Games — which is a little bit American Ninja Warrior, a little bit American Gladiators, presided over by megastar Dwayne Johnson — break out in the early going. Both Wade and Mills believe that's key to developing a hit in the now-mature unscripted genre.

"If you want something new that stands out, you've got to find something different," Mills notes. "The Masked Singer is a singing competition, but it's not the first thing you say when you talk about it."

Jenny Groom, executive vp alternative programming and development at NBC, also says the tone of her network's shows helps draw in viewers: "We see audiences show up for aspirational and inspiring shows all year round, and AGT: The Champions and The Titan Games deliver on those qualities in a major way."

Producers and buyers are taking more time and care with their product: Wade notes that Masked Singer didn't premiere until about 18 months after Fox bought the concept.

"We've all realized the viewer wants more and newer things; people are taking bigger swings," says Wade. "I'm obviously an unscripted person, so long may it last. We all root for each other because we all want this genre to do well."

This story also appears in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.