How many hours have you spent in Results Show Purgatory? You know, those few seconds before Ryan Seacrest or Cat Deeley or Tom Bergeron tells you who is or is not or might possibly be going home? The end of that cultural era may be just a few short commercial breaks away.
This past season, “American Idol” folded all the way in on itself with a Kelly Clarkson-theme week. The presence of Clarkson, the show’s first and perhaps greatest success story, made its comparative lameness seem even more pronounced. “Idol” will come to an end after its 15th season, and much of the the reality competition genre appears similarly dusty. “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Voice” are leaking viewers. “The X-Factor” called it quits last year. Put another way: if these shows were collectively a top-8 finalist on Songs From the Year Barry Manilow Was Born Night, it might be time to prepare the exit package.
For years, “Idol” dwarfed pretty much everything else on TV. At its peak, the show averaged more than 30 million viewers per episode (its most recent season pulled about a third of that). And unlike most other talent search series, it coupled those big ratings with tangible post-show success in the music industry. In the intervening years, needless to say, a lot has changed. Some of the reasons for the series’ decline are expected. After more than a decade, any premise — especially one specifically engineered to be formulaic — would likely seem stale. But broader cultural change also doomed “Idol,” and now threatens to destroy its entire genre.
Perhaps the most significant shift since the early 2000s has been the democratization of getting noticed. In other words: You don’t need to drive 12 hours to audition in an overstuffed arena if you have a YouTube account. “Idol” was once a genuinely great way to gain exposure from the public and media insiders. Now, future pop stars can attract industry attention with sizable personal followings and self-promotion.
The growth of YouTube viewership is also an increasingly massive headache for traditional networks. Teens are watching less TV and more online video. Clicking through a few viral clips is more efficient than slogging through a whole season of filler. Producers and executives need to answer the difficult question: Why should someone be invested in a live TV show when she can just watch the highlights online?
Then there are the problems inherent with the tried-and-true “Idol” formula. The voter-based elimination system is perhaps most to blame for the brand’s pervasive “meh”-ness. Six of the last seven “Idol” winners have been white dudes who strum guitars (the infamous “White Guys with Guitars” phenomenon) and, with the exception of Phillip Phillips, have seen relatively little success. Richard Rushfield, author of American Idol: The Untold Story attributes this to the gap between what viewers like and what music executives know will do well. “You have this alliance between young girls and grandmas and they see it, not necessarily as a contest to create a pop star competing on the contemporary radio, but as … who’s the nicest guy in a popularity contest,” he told ABC News. In other words: Likability equals votes, not record sales.
So are reality talent search competitions still viable? A notable exception to the trend: the ongoing summer-smash success of “America’s Got Talent,” which consistently places first or second in Tuesday night ratings. An unlimited range of contestants (no restrictions, age or otherwise) results in an entertaining mix of talent and surprise. Winners receive $1 million and a Vegas residency; the show isn’t built on an empty promise of mainstream record sales and the superstardom it can’t deliver. The likeability vote is a help, not a hindrance. Plus, the show airs in the summer, historically a dead zone for scripted programs. But all long-running series must eventually adapt: Judge Howard Stern has announced that he will leave the show after this season, and some reassembly may follow.
Another case study for the post-“Idol” world is NBC’s “The Voice.” Contestants need only be 15 years or older, resulting in a wider range of backstories and vocal styles (“Idol” originally had an age requirement of 16-24, though in later seasons this was widened to 15-28). The show’s signature big red swivel chairs, intended to minimize everything that’s not the voice, actually puts a lot of focus on the judges themselves, who are legitimate superstars rather than industry insiders. Duet sing-offs raise the stakes and change up the traditional performance format (as opposed to the no-stakes awkwardness of an “Idol” group number). But no shiny new franchise can sustain forever. The most recent season’s last episode hit an all-time finale low in the key 18-49 demographic.
Other recent reality competition hits are, like “America’s Got Talent,” more purely fun, un-predicated on the promise of lasting career success. The enormously popular “American Ninja Warrior,” a cross between “American Gladiators” and “Wipeout,” is designed specifically so that its contestants will fail. But as Slate’s Willa Paskin pointed out, “Unlike almost all reality shows, there are no bad guys.” It’s about pure entertainment, focused on human athletic pursuit — and ostensibly free of the overproduced theatrics of the “Idol” cohort. The American public may finally have tired of the TV contestant backstory, as was expertly parodied in this “Key & Peele” sketch.
So what’s an aging reality brand to do? One promising option is to loosen up the formula.
“Last Comic Standing” retooled after seven lackluster seasons by dropping the fan-voting system altogether; instead, a panel of judges decides which comedians will continue on. Producers also did away with the traditional audition process, instead culling contestants from submissions and inviting only the best to compete. The show’s ninth season, currently airing on NBC, is now pulling solid ratings.
A less successful experiment: The current season of “SYTYCD” is billed as “Stage vs. Street” — a bout between traditional, studio-taught styles and “street” forms of dance. But by imposing such artificial rules, “SYTYCD” has essentially pulled a reverse “America’s Got Talent” and limited its own reach. Viewership for the 12th season is hitting series lows.
Critics have been declaring the end of reality TV for years, but that’s not quite right. On FOX, Gordon Ramsay’s “Masterchef” and “Masterchef Junior” are heating up as “Hell’s Kitchen” dwindles. It’s the circle of televised life. Like a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” (whose 22nd cycle premieres next week), the competition show will be made over and emerge, looking unfamiliar and absurd — and poised to take the title. I was not rooting for you, reality television. None of us were rooting for you. But maybe, just maybe, there’s still time to learn something from this.
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