How to Make Reality TV Good Again? Only Make Shows Every Two Years

Or do them every four years, like the World Cup.

by Lauren O'Neill
21 May 2019, 10:00am

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There are two fundamental reasons why everyone loves the World Cup, which I will detail now:

1) the pints
2) the infrequency.

The first is self-explanatory – simple, universal, some might say transcendent – but the second is worth exploring. For my money, a huge part of the reason why the World Cup is beloved by all in the UK, even those who don’t give a shit about football, is because it only happens every four years.

The World Cup (as well as other sporting competitions like the Olympics) is rare, like a shiny Charizard. As is the way with eclipses and Frank Ocean albums, we get so excited about the World Cup because we’ve had to wait absolutely ages for it, and have therefore had a long time to forget that, actually, we felt quite fatigued by all the chat by the time the last one ended. Instead, when a new World Cup comes around, we, like Jeremy Corbyn dad-jogging down the stairs, are back and we’re ready for it all over again.

But join me in, aha, what I call a “thought experiment” for a moment. Yes you do have to. I would like you to imagine, for a few seconds, how sick you’d get of the World Cup if it happened every single year. “Oh. World Cup again is it?” you’d ask. “Can’t really be arsed with it this year. Might just sit this one out.”

It’s strange to think that such an event could get tiresome, but think about it in the context of reality TV (indeed, to extend my frankly already overextended World Cup metaphor, reality TV and sport competitions do actually have lots in common: there will be one eventual winner and lots of losers; there are fandoms for each competitor; there are storylines, heroes, villains and judges.) It’s not uncommon for previously loyal viewers of reality TV franchises – like The X Factor, The Apprentice, Britain’s Got Talent and Masterchef, all of which seem to begin again only a few months after the last series ended – to opt out. Maybe this is out of boredom, or just because now that the show’s been going for a few years, it’s simply become something that’s somehow always, always on in your parents’ house.

But – and you can probably see where I’m going with this; I mean, you definitely can, it’s in the headline – what if there were a way to circumvent the exhaustion of perfectly good and entertaining TV formats? What if, as with some event sports, we stopped making the same reality shows every single year? What would be so bad about applying World Cup rules to reality TV?

Obviously, the answer for TV networks is that because tried-and-tested formats have existing reputations, and they pull in viewers. But over time, these viewers become less reliable – seemingly because they’re tired of the yearly repetition, and of these programmes’ self-fulfilling clichés. A good example is The X Factor. At its peak (season 7, which aired in 2010 and featured the birth of One Direction and the time Rihanna inexplicably sang with Matt Cardle), the UK’s current longest running TV talent show had an average of 14.1 million viewers, and drew in an enormous 19.4 million viewers for the final. Almost a decade later, the show has aired every year, and ratings have unsurprisingly been in fairly steady decline. Last year’s season 15 finale reached a peak viewership of only 7.5 million – less than half of what the programme could rake in during its glory days. This is all despite Simon Cowell’s attempts to freshen things up with dynamic new judges (uh, Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams), and new stages of the competition such as the Six Chair Challenge, which I like to call the Sixth Circle of Hell. Unsurprisingly, these haven’t worked, and instead respectively emphasise the growing irrelevance and emotional cruelty of the X Factor format.

There’s also the issue that pretty much all of the reality shows I mention rely on the right individuals applying to take part. Characters are basically the life or death of any reality TV programme – just think about where this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race would have been without Miss Vanjie – but when a show airs year on year, the field of competitors narrows further and further, meaning that the general quality drops, but for the few stars that make every season. If Drag Race, for example, only aired once every couple of years, there’d be time for new queens to rise up through local scenes and online, and the pool of applicants would be much larger, giving producers more choice and more opportunity to tell the best possible stories.

As I write this, one of the biggest shows on British TV is gearing up to return for the fifth consecutive year – on Monday, Love Island officially announced that the first episode of season five will air on 3rd June. Since season three, no reality show has been more agenda-setting but if makers ITV continue to offer viewers more of the same, some will inevitably fall off.

This seems inevitable in the current TV climate, where streaming is king and viewers are bombarded with a never-ending buffet of new shows and formats. What streaming doesn’t have, however, is the communal nature of terrestrial TV – while people can chat about Netflix shows, they don’t get the immediate experience of watching them at the same time as everyone else. Traditional TV should take advantage of that as much as it can.

The options available to producers, then, seem clear: keep the content of existing reality TV shows fresh and engaging, or make these shows more rare, like special TV events rather than run-of-the-mill background noise you can use to plot the year going by.