Reality TV Must Evolve to Keep Pace With Audience Savvy

The prime TV target of 18-to-49-year-olds has now been watching reality TV for 30 years. You can imagine how hard they are to fool with the old tricks! Can it still be done? Of course, but reality TV has to evolve and become as sophisticated as an audience with three decades of viewing experience.

I have been making reality TV for 25 of those 30 years. I’ve managed to keep at least a program or two on the air for that entire time. To keep that going and grow my business I’ve got to figure out what’s next before the audience knows. To do that, I find it’s instructive to look at the cycles of the past.

In the '90s, the airwaves got oversaturated with sitcoms and eventually most began to feel formulaic and unsurprising. Conditions were perfect for Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to grab the audience's attention. This beginning of the reality TV explosion was mostly about formats that focused on social experiments. Producers “cast” people and forced them to either just live together (TheReal World, Surreal Life…) or live together and compete (Survivor, Flavor of Love).

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Soon, too many of those formatted shows crowded the channels and the audience evolved toward more organic premises. Keeping Up With the Kardashians may be a heavily produced show, but they are at least a real family with genuine stakes with each other. Then the trend continued toward more extreme—but still organic—reality like Deadliest Catch and Below Deck.

Now, after 30 years, the audience knows every trick. They can hear all the edits in a franken-bite. They’re still willing to forgive a little producing—they are sophisticated enough to know the story has to be structured and tightened through editing—but they want a true story. The audience and reality TV have grown together to the point where TV is starting to reflect actual reality and tell more truth. I think that trend will continue, but there are other pressures on reality production and budgets that will affect what the future shows will look like.

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One phenomenon occurring is what I call “the destruction of the middle class.” The proliferation of new channels and streaming services demanding original content is fragmenting the audience. That drives down the revenue from advertising and distribution, in turn squeezing production budgets. Also, once a show that costs very little becomes a hit, the pressure is on to find more like it. A cable network would rather take a shot at three series costing $200,000 per hour to produce and hope one of them hits than put all of their chips on one show costing $600,000 an hour.

That pressure is now coupled with the younger audiences seeming to not really care about expensive production value. In fact, high production value makes them suspicious that they are watching something faked by producers. A grittier look indicates a truer story. Below Deck is a good example of this. It is filmed on a cramped boat at sea with a cast working long hours at their actual jobs all while dealing with the drama of demanding clients. With those conditions and schedule, we simply can’t make the show look as polished as some others. But people are responding to Below Deck, because it feels and looks more like a true story—which it is.

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So, with networks not having the same revenue streams but still needing more volume, and the audience not caring if the show is shot on an iPhone: If you’re pitching a cable reality show these days, you better be talking about $200,000 to $300,000 an hour—even less in some places. Sure, broadcast networks still need “event” reality, but they only buy five of those a year compared to the 500 reality shows bought for cable. So you can try to sell one of those $1 million-per-hour network shows or you can try to sell lots of $200,000 shows. The bottom line is, the $600,000 “middle class” is dying out faster than classic rock stars.

And what about YouTube and the explosion of digital and mobile? Does the fact that most millennials watch original content on Snapchat instead of NBC mean the end is near? To me, it seems similar to when everyone thought CD-ROMs were going to supplant TV. People were saying that CD-ROMs would enable the audience to take their own pathways through stories and even pick their own endings. Turns out, not so much. No one under 30 even knows what a CD-ROM is. The lesson is people want good stories. Vines, Snaps and YouTube are good time-killers and fill a void that broadcast or cable can’t, but people will always want a program worth some time investment. Long-form stories will always be in demand. If you’re a good storyteller, you’re in business—forever.

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So, what would I develop right now to stay ahead of the evolving audience?

I think the audience is sophisticated enough now to allow a boom in lower-budget social experiments. They will now forgive a certain amount of “set-up” by producers as long as the story that unfolds is true and reveals the truth about the characters. I think Naked and Afraid is the first of this new breed but there will be more soon. That’s where reality TV is going: low-budget, extreme social experiments cast with great characters who can’t help being themselves, produced and edited for truth and revelation. That is at least until we’ve seen Lost and Dancing, Tied-up and Cooking and Underwater House Flippers (please, no one steal my development slate!). At that point, everyone will go back to wanting sitcoms again.

Mark Cronin is a producer, writer and showrunner. Among his 40 TV credits he has worked on are VH1’s The Surreal Life and Flavor of Love, MTV’s Singled Out and Bravo’s Below Deck.