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Searching for the Same (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That)

If the success of The Voice revealed anything about the TV landscape, it’s that the singing competition genre is far from reaching its saturation point. And to expect many more derivative reality shows on the broadcast network schedules this summer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Reality television has arrived: It will comprise onethird of the broadcasters’ fall lineup. And summer remains a ripe breeding ground for new alternative series, as nets debut relatively low-cost shows amidst less competition and hope one (or several) catch on as hits.

At best, the shows break out of summer into bonafide hits that can be moved to the regular season (Survivor, American Idol) or become summer perennials (So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent). At the very least, they will likely get better ratings than the reruns that would otherwise fill the schedule.

And the fact that The Voice managed to strike a chord (pun intended) proved a new take on an old tune can be just about as good as a brand-new one.

Says an executive at an NBC rival: “As The Voice shows, you can take something that may seem like a familiar format and breathe new life into it.”

When NBC announced The Voice at the end of last year, many industry insiders scoffed at the idea of yet another American Idol, wondering if there were any vocal talents in the U.S. that remained undiscovered.

The Voice, whose tweaks to the formula include blind auditions and a “battle round,” was not even “new”—the program was based on a Dutch show called The Voice of Holland. But to American viewers, it looked fresh.

Likewise, many of this summer’s network reality entries rely on derivative formats. Among them are ABC’s Expedition: Impossible, an adventure competition series reminiscent of The Amazing Race; NBC’s It’s Worth What? and Fox’s Buried Treasure, which tap into the thrifting genre popularized by cable shows like Pawn Stars; and another singing competition show in Karaoke Battle USA, from ABC’s news division.

There have always been copycats, of course. But the cost efficiency of reality in general and the encouragement of The Voice’s performance are not the only reasons to expect more of them at this point.

It’s also because so much ground already has been covered in reality TV, says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “It’s very difficult, because of the proliferation of this genre over the past 10 years, to really do something new,” Adgate says.

Here are three other things shaping 2011’s summer broadcast landscape.

1. There are some new ideas. The raft of derivative shows does not mean there’s nothing new on broadcast this summer. Among the new swings is ABC’s 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show, which puts a Wipeout style spin on a typical quiz show. Contestants will be eliminated by being shot out of a cannon, pushed off a moving semi truck or yanked off a dock by a speed boat, to name a few.

Another, CBS’ Same Name, features celebrities switching places with strangers who share their name. The pilot episode has David Hasselhoff trading lives with an electrical technician/landscaper in a small Texas town, which seems vaguely reminiscent of the net’s Undercover Boss in its placing of high-level people (executives, in that case) in regular people’s lives, though with a new twist.

2 There’s a raft of rookies.
In addition to returning stalwarts like Big Brother and The Bachelorette, there are quite a few new series debuting this summer. Almost half of the reality series scheduled are new.

ABC has three new concepts, plus a weight-loss version of Extreme Makeover; NBC has a pair of newcomers in Love in the Wild and It’s Worth What?; and CBS and Fox have an entrant apiece.

3. Not everything is unscripted. Despite the majority of broadcast’s summer series being from the alternative genre, there are a few scripted series, part of a move that has started slowly at some networks, in the face of cable’s now traditional scripted onslaught in the warmer months. “You hope you get to that point where it’s a true year-round schedule that is not only reality but scripted as well,” says another broadcast-network executive. “That is definitely a goal.”

CBS brought back Flashpoint, a Canadian coproduction, for a run that started in spring. ABC is making a similar play this year with new medical drama Combat Hospital—a different model of doing scripted series that allows for quality content in the lesser-watched season while unloading some of the expense.

Despite being surrounded by unscripted fare, scripted summer series can find an audience if they are good, Adgate says, as evidenced by ABC’s Rookie Blue, which returns for a second season this summer.

“It may take a little while, but one thing about the summer is you can afford to be patient,” Adgate says.

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