Maybe it was DC Cupcakes, because we didn’t need another cable reality show about cake bosses. Or perhaps it was the latest chronicling of blue-collar workers in Alaska or Louisiana. (Doesn’t Crawfish Catchers look tedious? And we bet you can’t even tell whether that title is real or not).
Or it could have been Bravo’s seventh Real Housewives series.
Or E!’s fourth Kardashians title.
Whatever marked the official tipping point, it all feels familiar now: the master chefs, treasure seekers, tattoo artists, makeover experts, ghost hunters, dirty jobbers, untrained pets, C-list celebrity families, and glow-tanned bickering glambots overturning restaurant tables. We’ve been Flipping Out for years, and don’t necessarily want to flip out anymore. Even VH1’s Dating Naked, a series that got more buzz than any other new reality show in 2014, disappointed in the ratings (it debuted to just 826,000 viewers). You know a genre’s in trouble when hot naked singles rubbing body paint on one another can’t draw a crowd.
The diminishing returns of cable TV’s sea of reality sameness—ratings for 14 of the top 20 major cable channels declined in 2014—is one of the reasons networks that have devoted decades to producing unscripted shows are suddenly making dramas too. Bravo, E!, WGN, Pivot, WEtv, and even Animal Planet have all either recently launched, or are readying to launch, their first scripted shows.
“Every year the number of shows that premiere increases exponentially while the number that hit decreases exponentially,” says Lara Spotts, Bravo’s senior VP of development. “It’s the most Hunger Games-ian environment we’ve ever seen as programmers. We’re all trying as many strategic moves as we can.”
And it’s not just cable networks that are finding the odds are not in their favor. There hasn’t been a new breakout reality show on broadcast TV since The Voice launched in 2011. Before that, there was Fox’s MasterChef in 2010 and ABC’s Shark Tank in 2009. But most of the broadcast reality hits are more than a decade old—like CBS’ Survivor (2000), ABC’s The Bachelor (2002), and Fox’s American Idol (2002).
There has been plenty written about why there hasn’t been a new hit lately, but it all comes down to saturation. We are full. Several hundred new shows are launched across cable and broadcast every year, and most are unscripted. It’s very difficult to show us a reality concept that’s both (A) truly intriguing and (B) somewhat original—as the producers of Fox’s Utopia can attest.
Even AMC decided the reality TV game was too tough to crack right now. Two years ago the channel made an investment in reality programming with a new batch of shows. The network recently canceled all but two of of them (and one survivor is its Walking Dead chat show). “In an environment of exploding content options for viewers, we have decided to make scripted programming our priority,” AMC announced in early October.
So now, even die-hard reality TV networks are trying scripted shows instead. Bravo will enter the scripted fray in December with Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, starring Lisa Edelstein as a fortysomething self-help author who navigates her marital split. “Shonda Rhimes isn’t on five nights a week, so maybe [her audience] will come to us on Tuesdays,” Spotts reasons.
Next year Bravo’s rival E! will launch The Royals, a soapy scripted drama about a wildly fictionalized British royal family, starring Elizabeth Hurley as the queen of England. “It’s harder and harder for a reality show to break through,” says Jeff Olde, executive VP of programming at E!. “And for us The Royals felt like a natural extension, to give our viewers a look into a world where we’d gladly send our reality cameras but where they could never go.”
At least three new scripted projects made by basic cable networks are horror series, and there’s one obvious inspiration there: AMC’s The Walking Dead, which is delivering an incredible 17 million viewers weekly. WEtv’s new scripted show will be the exorcism drama South of Hell, exec-produced by Eli Roth and starring Mena Suvari. Animal Planet is developing the graphic-novel series The Other Dead, about zombie animal attacks in Louisiana. And WGN America, a network best known for sports coverage and sitcom reruns, bypassed the reality genre altogether and turned to original programming earlier this year with the scripted witches’-brew drama Salem. “[Horror] has a built-in audience that you can count on to come to your network and check it out,” Cherniss says. “There were people building fan websites for Salem before they had even seen it—and that’s very specific to these kinds of shows.”
Obviously, a drama doesn’t guarantee an audience will show up, either. On Thursday, WEtv canceled its first scripted drama series effort The Divide.
Don’t take all this the wrong way. Reality TV isn’t going anywhere. In the early days of the genre, that was the cliched media story—reporters would ask. “Is reality TV a trend?” It’s not a trend. It’s not dying or dead. But there does seem to be a weariness and a need for a format that’s truly original to break away from the pack—and not just be yet another variation on what we’ve already seen. “There’s an ebb and flow, certainly, a natural lunar cycle,” Spotts says. “But I think people’s interest in what other people are doing is as fertile as ever.”
Still, expect to see fewer shows about naked house-flipping polygamous bass fishers in the near future—and a few more shows with impressive acting, smooth camera work, and snappily crafted dialogue. (Along with a zombie gator or two.)