Skip to main content

Reality Shows Can Boom And Bust for Networks

The implosion of TLC's 19 Kids and Counting demonstrates how quickly a hit show can crumble, leaving a network with a huge hole to fill.

It’s a pattern that afflicted A&E with Duck Dynasty, MTV with Jersey Shore, VH1 with Megan Wants a Millionaire and even ABC with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When networks play with fire by hitching themselves to reality shows, there can be serious financial consequences when a ratings boom goes bust.

After Josh Duggar, the eldest son in 19 Kids’ Duggar family, admitted to inappropriate sexual conduct with underage girls when he was a teenager, a wave of social media outrage led TLC to pull reruns of the series from its schedule and for advertisers including Walgreens, General Mills, Pizza Hut and Choice Hotels, to announce they would no longer sponsor the show.

19 Kids is not in production, which gives the network time to make an announcement about whether it will be canceled. People magazine reported the network was thinking about a spinoff show that would keep the network in business with the family by featuring its younger generation, including newlyweds Jill and Derick Dillard and Jessa and Ben Seewald. The network has not made any comments since taking the show off the air.

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar began to try to rehabilitate their images by doing an interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News Channel last week.

Taking time makes sense. 19 Kids had been increasingly important to TLC. The series accounted for 11% of the network’s gross C3 ratings points in the 25-54 demo in 2014, up from 3% in 2013, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson Research.

Year-to-date, 19 Kids has generated $25.2 million, or 14%, of TLC’s $184.4 million in ad revenue, according to iSpotTV, which tracked commercial activity in real time.

In the short term, money that would have been spent on 19 Kids by sponsors including Geico, Twentieth Century Fox, State Farm, Virgin Mobile and Walt Disney Pictures will probably wind up on other shows on TLC or possibly on other networks owned by parent Discovery Communications.

But over the medium term, having a show account for that large a percentage of the schedule is a big risk for the network, says Nathanson.

It’s hardly the first time a reality show went from hit to miss when controversy engulfed cast members and put a dent in its network.

TLC canceled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—a cultural phenomenon—after Mama June Shannon dated a convicted child molester. A&E’s ratings overall took a dive in 2013 when Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made comments that were perceived as antigay. Previously the show had been the most-watched nonfiction series in cable history.

The revelation that a contestant on VH1’s dating show Megan Wants a Millionaire was a person of interest in the murder of his wife led to the network canceling the show in 2009 and moving away from that type of reality programing, leading to double-digit ratings declines.

“The market for reality is getting tougher and tougher, and I think people are starting to turn away from reality to scripted,” says Michael Hirschorn, CEO of Ish Entertainment and a former VH1 programming executive. “The bar you have to get over to successfully pull off a successful reality show is getting higher and higher. If you actually get one of those, you’re going to do whatever you can to hold onto it, because there might not be another one coming for quite a while.”

And though advertisers are pulling out of 19 Kids, Brad Adgate, head of research at media buying agency Horizon Media, doesn’t expect TLC (formerly the Learning Channel) to abandon a reality niche where it has found success.

“They kind of have to lick their wounds and go from there. This is not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last,” says Adgate. “But if you consider the hundreds and hundreds of unscripted shows that are on television, there’s only a handful in recent years that have really raised people’s eyebrows.”

Adgate notes that as cable networks move to original series from off-broadcast reruns, more and more are doing scripted series. But he doesn’t see reality going away. “It’s affordable, and you can get 3 or 4 million viewers for a particular telecast,” he says.

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.