Desperate for the Next 'Duck Dynasty': Explaining Reality's Growing Pains

Reality Race Illustration - H 2014
Illustration by: Taylor Callery

Reality Race Illustration - H 2014

Cable TV's biggest genre has not produced a new top 10 hit in two years as networks and copycat programming abound.

This story first appeared in the July 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The only thing more troubling than Duck Dynasty's 46 percent season-to-season ratings slide is that its genre has no heir apparent.

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The A&E juggernaut remains cable's reality king, averaging 6.3 million viewers for first-run episodes this year, but its swift decline typifies a challenge for the genre as newer series siphon off viewers yet fail to capture the buzz (or ratings highs) of past breakouts. Duck, which catapulted the Robertson family to fame soon after it premiered in 2012, is arguably the genre's last bona fide hit to emerge, and finding the next one has proved more difficult than ever.

Though executives have publicly cited a crisis of creativity in reality's derivative culture, the bigger culprit is fragmentation. After all, the number of primetime hours devoted to fresh unscripted programming jumped another 16 percent in 2013, thanks in part to a growing crop of new entrants, including CNN, USA and TNT, with unscripted fare now comprising 79 percent of all first-run hours in primetime.

"It's just supersaturated," History executive vp and GM Dirk Hoogstra told THR this year, adding: "You had this proliferation of cable networks, all of them doing reality, all of them chasing the same kinds of shows. Consumers got a little overwhelmed. It's never been more challenging to launch an unscripted hit."

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Of the top 10 reality series on cable this year, not one was launched during the past 12 months. In fact, only three (Duck, VH1's Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and History's Mountain Men) came out as recently as 2012, and No. 9, Discovery's Deadliest Catch, has been on the schedule since 2005 and is enjoying its strongest season in three years.

At the same time, the genre's newer series have had an increasingly difficult time breaking in, with 2013 marking the fourth consecutive year in which the number of cable shows debuting to an audience of at least 1 million viewers in the target 25-to-54 demographic has declined. In fact, only 24 percent of new unscripted cable series averaged north of 1 million, down from 35 percent in 2010. (Broadcast has had its own set of troubles, with NBC's 2011 entry The Voice the last to launch big. )

Another reality veteran notes the genre used to have the advantage of being different, and now so much of it is the same (see: a multitude of series about hoarders, pawn stars and rednecks). "The need for all these hours on so many channels only poisons the well even more," says the executive, "because it creates an ecosystem where the majority of shows blend rather than stand out."

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Making matters worse, unscrip­ted series' ability to repeat -- a way not only to establish an audience for a show but also to generate profits -- is no longer as certain in today's crowded landscape. Not that cable's marathon strategy will be abandoned anytime soon, as evidenced by A&E's decision to air Duck Dynasty 1,431 times, not including specials, during the 2013-14 season. But with so many original options elsewhere and multiple viewing platforms on which to watch, repeats of reality programming across the top 20 cable networks are down 9 percent year-over-year.

None of this is to say the genre has lost its status as cable's most dependable workhorse, nor is it to suggest viewers have lost their appetite for reality TV. Much the opposite, with longer-running series including The Real Housewives of Atlanta still notching ratings records and the time devoted to watching unscripted programming on cable up 2 percent this year.

And to the point of Brian Hughes, senior vp audience analysis at Magna Global: "It's so much cheaper to produce than scripted that even if ratings aren't exactly where a network might want them to be, it's a less risky investment to make than if spending $4.5 million on a drama pilot that then ends up failing."

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There are signs of potential promise, too, with 2014 newcomers such as Wahlburgers and hip-hop series Bring It! making an impact on ratings for A&E and Lifetime, respectively. One-off stunts featuring such daredevils as Nik Wallenda also have managed to generate big interest and ratings (13 million viewers watched Wallenda's Grand Canyon walk on Discovery in 2013).

And though it's not clear they'll translate to big viewership, quick turnaround series led by Lifetime's True Tori, which film mere weeks before they hit the air, are providing a much-needed fresh take on the genre. The same could be said for the recent cadre of nude-themed shows (VH1's Dating Naked, Discovery's Naked and Afraid), which have managed to generate ink at a time when so much else has been written off.

"It's not like it's a dire situation," says Sam Armando, senior vp and director of strategic intelligence at media-buying firm SMGx, "but there are peaks and valleys in any genre, and we might be experiencing a valley for reality."