Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

Leaving reality behind

Posted on

James Dimmock/E!

[DESKTOP_WEB_APP_EMBARGO {11072014} {130298} {11-6-2014} {

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 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 doesn’t draw a crowd.

} {

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 don’t draw a crowd.

The diminishing returns of cable TV’s sea of reality sameness are among the reasons networks that have devoted decades to producing unscripted shows are suddenly making dramas instead.

”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.”

A scripted hit is far more costly and difficult to produce than a reality show, which is why niche cable networks have long shied away from even attempting one, leaving the genre to the big boys. But with ratings sagging for cable and broadcast networks alike, and advertisers always willing to pay a premium for a quality scripted show, even modest-size cable channels are busting out of their comfort zones. It’s part innovation, part desperation, part why-the-hell-not.

Bravo, which announced its intention to move into scripted programming in 2011, will finally enter the fray in December with Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, starring Lisa Edelstein (House) 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 the network that gave us the Kardashians. ”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 projects are horror series, and it’s not hard to understand why. AMC’s The Walking Dead is delivering an incredible 17 million viewers. It’s easy for executives to think, ”All we’d need is a fraction of that audience to have our biggest hit ever.” WEtv’s new scripted show will be the exorcism drama South of Hell, exec-produced by Eli Roth and starring Mena Suvari. Animal Planet—that’s right, even 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,” says WGN president and GM Matt Cherniss. ”There were people building fan websites for Salem before they had even seen it—and that’s very specific to these kinds of shows.”

While fans’ enthusiasm for scripted dramas continues to grow, the safety net previously provided by reality TV is shrinking. In 2012 AMC made an uncharacteristic investment in reality programming with a new batch of shows. It didn’t last long. The network recently canceled all but two of its unscripted titles (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. Don’t take all this the wrong way. Reality TV isn’t going anywhere. You just might 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. ”We’re not overdoing it,” Olde says. ”We’re going to make a big bet and see if this works.”

}]

Comments