As reality ratings sink and the paradigm shifts, the Big Four keep trying

By Lynette Rice
February 24, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

Underwhelming ratings this season for reality titans such as American Idol and The Biggest Loser have threatened the idea that unscripted TV can remain a healthy, viable genre. Despite an impressive second-season return for NBC’s The Voice (up 40 percent in viewers with 17 million on average), we’ll likely never see another reality show that can blow the roof off of Nielsen the way Idol and Survivor did in their heydays. Cable has great luck with docuseries like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers — a.k.a. ”organic competitions” — but they’re unlikely to catch on with the Big Four. ”They are afraid of them,” admits one top reality agent. ”ABC and NBC said they would consider [organic] docuseries this year, but they’ve never really worked.” (Case in point: NBC’s It’s Worth What? and Fox’s Buried Treasure tanked last summer.) So look for the nets to stick with broad lifestyle and competition series. ABC is developing a quiz show for fall 2012 dubbed The Last Exit, while CBS and Fox are both launching new dating series this year. (For Fox, think The Bachelor on speed.) Meanwhile, NBC will give Project Runway a retail twist by enabling viewers of Fashion Star (featuring Nicole Richie and Jessica Simpson as mentors) to buy duds created by contestants the day after each episode airs. ”In the old days, diamonds were lying on the surface,” says Dan Cutforth of Magical Elves, which produces Top Chef and its spin-offs for Bravo. ”Now you have to go down 2,000 feet to find them. But they are still there…. It’s [just] harder to exploit those big themes in life like finding love and building a society.”