Friday, April 20, 2012

The Talent Tumble and Other Unscripted Trends

Three weeks ago, I introduced the A18-49+, a number that helps us put previous seasons of TV ratings on a level playing field with those of today. Two weeks ago, I attached numbers to common labels like "hit" and "flop." And last week, I dove into the larger trends within the realm of broadcast primetime scripted TV. In four words: sitcoms up, dramas down. (Next week, maybe I create an index page so I won't have to recap all these posts every week!)

As for this week, it's the sequel to last week's post, as I tackle unscripted shows. There is not the crystal-clear trajectory here that we had with the dramas and sitcoms. The message will not be quite as unified. But I still have a few kinda interesting points that I left out of last week's post for length/sanity reasons.

We'll start with the shows that have stayed pretty steady relative to the rest of primetime over the years.

The Stalwarts

Survivor The Amazing Race America's Funniest Home Videos Dateline Fri 20/20 Cops
2006-07 146 / 124
100 / 84 70 56 65 52
2007-08 144 / 127 105 72 60 59 61
2008-09 141 / 131 106 / 104 72 52 65 55
2009-10 138 / 140 121 / 112 73 55 58 57
2010-11 145 / 129 131 / 104 70 56 60 57
2011-12 142 / 120 121 / 111 68 56 61 54

(In case it's not clear, the numbers with a slash (/) are fall/spring.)

Most of the shows that have remained about the same over the years are the kinds of shows you'd expect: things nobody ever talks about, like newsmagazines and other particularly low-priority unscripted shows. The one exception to this is 60 Minutes, which has increased fairly substantially over the last few years, though I attribute most of that to the massive increases in those NFL lead-ins it gets for most of the fall. I would also say the increased power of NFL competition is why America's Funniest Home Videos, which goes up against the NFL throughout the fall, has had a small downturn the last couple years. From a timeslot-adjusted standpoint, I don't think any of these shows have changed much across the last six years.

Do they tell us anything? They're a sort of "control group" for the state of primetime in general. Can a show decline at almost exactly the rate of primetime every year and run forever? If not, then it might suggest primetime's declines are beyond what would be "sustainable" over the long term.

The results are rather mixed. On the one hand, some of the shows (48 Hours Mystery, 20/20, America's Funniest Home Videos) still seem quite safe. On the other, some seem to be phasing out a bit. Dateline is on pace to run something like 25-30 hours fewer than last year. That may be more about Grimm's success on Friday (taking up Dateline's usual second hour) than Dateline's failure, but it's still noticeable on a network with so many holes everywhere.

Then you have Cops and America's Most Wanted. AMW got axed after the 2010-11 season despite its best A18-49+ (64) in three years. Cops is just barely hanging on even though it's about where it was five years ago. (It is down a touch from the last few years, but it seems like that might come to some extent from its increasingly erratic scheduling.) So are these shows' demises telling about primetime in general? I'm not sure. As I've demonstrated in the past, the shows are extremely unattractive to advertisers relative to the ratings they pull. A Fox exec said of AMW's cancellation last year that they'd "not made money on the show in quite a while." Why are they gone now? It might be more about finding a reasonable replacement than anything. Sports are increasingly valuable, plus Fox has new opportunities in college football.

Survivor and The Amazing Race are really the only "big time" reality franchises that haven't had some kind of sharp downturn, especially considering Survivor has had a lot more competition in the last couple springs, facing American Idol regularly for the first time. I do think the NFL overruns have helped the Race in the fall, but overall I consider both these shows about even over this period. Why have they been able to hold up? Maybe they're better built to last. Maybe CBS' TV-loyal base audience helps. Or maybe it's just a coincidence and they're merely the last franchises to experience...

The Sharp Unscripted Downturn

This was a big year for the sitcom, but one of my big points last week was that it wasn't impossible to see this coming. The big sitcoms had been inching upward and the big dramas had been trickling downward in almost every one of the previous few seasons.

Another undeniable truth is that it's been a bad year for a lot of the big unscripted franchises. The highest-profile example is American Idol, but it's not alone in taking 20%+ dives. The key difference is that this one was a little tougher to see this coming.

American Idol Wed Dancing with the Stars Mon The Biggest Loser Celebrity Apprentice The Bachelor America's Next Top Model
2006-07 315 152 / 141 90
87 / 102 67 / 67
2007-08 308 159 / 142 100 / 105 108 107 / 82 72 / 59
2008-09 305 148 / 165 108 / 127 106 138 66 / 59
2009-10 299 131 / 173 134 / 120 100 146 54 / 54
2010-11 308 170 / 183 108 / 112 111 128 51 / 39
2011-12 226 139 / 126 93 / 92 86 109 36 / 22

What first stuck out to me here was that this may be more of a show-by-show thing than a larger trend. Four of these six did about the same thing: have an approximately two-year "peak," then just bleed from there. And that trend wasn't attached to a certain year. Dancing milled around 150 for awhile, shot up to 170+ for three straight cycles starting in spring 2010, and has plummeted this year. The Biggest Loser also had a three-cycle peak from spring 2009 through spring 2010. The Bachelor's resurgence really lasted about two years (2009-10), and Top Model was at its relative biggest right at the beginning of the CW's existence (2006-08). Three of the four (DWTS the exception) were showing clear declines even before this season.

So maybe this was just the year for Celebrity Apprentice and, most importantly, American Idol to fall off the cliff. But I'd point out that 1) all those other shows declined more rapidly in 2011-12 than 2010-11 and 2) Idol and Apprentice didn't have those brief peaks. They'd been more like Survivor/Race in that they had previously remained quite solid.

The 2007 season of Idol was the second highest-rated ever, down just a touch from 2006, and it may have been the most dominant in the relative landscape. But despite declining each year after that, its dominance compared to the league average barely went down at all. The performance night typically continued to hit more than three times the league average. Since I consider two times the league average a "megahit," that is staggering. A 231 in 18-49+ is still amazing, and the Wednesday Idol should remain the biggest show on TV this season, but it's still quite a change for it to come almost all the way back to the pack in one year.

Reality Oversaturation

Why has this been such a bad year for unscripted TV? The prevailing theory is oversaturation. I don't know that that's the reason, but it's really the only obvious thing that would affect all the shows simultaneously. All these "serialized" reality franchises continue to linger, but new game-changers keep piling on. Even if The X Factor was a ratings disappointment, it was still a "big hit" (158 on Wed / 149 on Thu). And The Voice (181 in spring/summer 2011, 205 this season) has dropped a ton across the season but is still at minimum a very big hit. It's undeniably hurt Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, with whom it competed directly, but it doesn't seem like a stretch to say some viewers of the other franchises are opting for the hot new thing.

Not only are the new shows increasing the talent show count, but the two incumbent talent competitions keep slowly but surely making their own seasons longer and longer:

Original Hours Aired

American Idol Dancing with the Stars The Voice The X Factor TOTAL
2006-07 50 48.75

2007-08 52.5 54.5

2008-09 50.5 59.5

2009-10 56 59.5

2010-11 55 59 18
2011-12 58.5 61.5 36 42.5 198.5

Bottom line: there will be about 100 more (or about twice as many) regular-season hours devoted to the hit music competitions as five years ago. It's probably safe to say that people do not have twice as much time to devote to these shows as they did five years ago. And I'm not even counting the "non-hit" talent shows like The Sing-Off (which, oh by the way, aired 22 hours this fall, up from eight and ten in its first two seasons). Through 2009-10, we could usually count on three of these big event seasons per regular season (Idol and Dancing x2). Now, we're up to about six or so. Ultimately, something's gotta give.

In 2010-11, arguably the peak of the musical competition phenomenon, people thought these shows were so big because they were "DVR-proof." They were live event television, and a big part of the entertainment value was in talking about them the next day. I can buy that. But does that "DVR-proof" nature turn against the shows when there are so damn many? It's much tougher now to be ready for the next day, and there's less value in getting caught up. That's why they all drop so much from premiere to finale. "Must-see-now" becomes "must-see-now-or-never-at-all." People have to make choices, and injecting a Voice or an X Factor just forces even more choices to be made.

What To Do?

As I said at the top, the takeaway is a lot less clear here than my "more sitcoms" drum-beating of the last post. It's easy to capitalize on something that's getting stronger, but is it realistic to stop or slow the big reality franchise declines just by scheduling shrewdly? It'd certainly be nice to see The Voice and DWTS somehow separated, and there's something to be said for cutting down on filler; for example, the one-hour edition seems to have helped The Biggest Loser in the last few weeks. But I kinda doubt those things would help considerably. After all, Dancing was way down even in the fall when it went against The Sing-Off. And beyond those tweaks, the reality is that none of the big competition shows are close to a cancellation territory right now. It's easy to say they need to cut down on the real estate, but none of the individual plots are worth cutting.

Because of that, I don't think things are going to change a whole lot next season. I do think meaningful change will come in fall 2013 if we have another season much like this one. If we're in a world where CBS Mondays are crushing The Voice and Modern Family is handily beating American Idol - and those propositions, while not reality right now, are certainly far less ludicrous than they seemed a year ago - I could see ABC seriously considering scaling back Dancing with the Stars to a cycle a year and the other franchises beginning to cut back their acreage a bit.

But I don't mean to imply that's a given, because at least from an unscripted standpoint, this year was kind of an anomaly. Maybe the million live competition franchises all magically stabilize and co-exist next season. I wouldn't count on it, but I don't rule it out either.

Next week: the broadcast networks' new shows, year-by-year.

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