When Bravo launched its new series Top Design late last month, it demonstrated — yet again — just how durable reality shows are for basic-cable networks.
A competitive home-design show, Top Design drew 1.8 million viewers in its 11 p.m. time slot on Jan. 31, helped in no small measure by airing after the season finale of Top Chef. That cooking competition closed out its second season with 3.9 million viewers, including 2.9 million from the prized 18-to-49 viewer age range.
In fact, 18 reality shows — which purposely avoid professional acting and scripted action — finished in the top 50 shows in January among those sought-after viewers in their prime spending years. And the networks that put the most faith in reality shows are getting amply rewarded.
In the fourth quarter of 2006, VH1’s viewership among adults 18 to 49 grew by 15% from an average of 382,000 to 441,000, while Bravo jumped 47% from 221,000 to 324,000. TLC continued to reverse its previous decline, climbing by 18% in the 18-49 bracket of viewers, from 385,000 to 453,000. A&E Network leaped from 14th to sixth place with a 43% gain, from 441,000 to 660,000 viewers. And that was before Tony Soprano added his muscle to the channel.
Leading the reality-show pack this season was VH1’s Flavor of Love 2, which averaged 3.97 million total viewers — including 7.6 million for its Oct. 15 finale — a 57% increase from season one. A&E’s fugitive-finder chronicle Dog the Bounty Hunter has averaged 2.2 million viewers in its third season, a 29% gain from its prior year. And Top Chef averaged more than 2 million viewers in year two, compared to 1.2 million in its first season.
More importantly, cable advertising executives say clients have lost any initial wariness they held about the supposedly lowbrow nature — and supposedly low-rent viewers — inherent in the format.
“[Reality series] are culturally accepted and part of the pop culture and eagerly viewed and embraced and talked about by the consumer. They are as desirable as any other ad property we have,” said Andrew Capone, senior vice president of marketing and business development at National Cable Communications, the New York-based national spot rep firm for virtually all of the major cable operators.
But as networks pile up record ratings with hits such as Top Chef, Dog and VH1’s I Love (a woman named) New York, they face enormous pressure to keep up the momentum.
That’s especially challenging for cable networks such as VH1 and Bravo, which are almost fully distributed and appeal largely to a niche audience, such as young adults or more educated, higher-income viewers. As a result, they have inherent growth limitations.
“Everyone just wants more. They have their core audience and they want more,” said Fox Reality Channel chief operating officer and general manager David Lyle.
NINE TO WATCH
Bravo aired 10 reality shows in 2006. Four of them — Top Chef, Project Runway, Workout andMillion Dollar Listing — drew more than 1 million viewers at least once.
But “the goal is to reach 2 million” with each show, network president Lauren Zalaznick said.
Programmers concede that it has become as difficult to find a truly innovative breakout series in the reality genre as it is in the scripted-series arena.
“Real-life series [are] like any other TV genre,” said A&E senior vice president for alternative and nonfiction programming Robert Sharenow. “The challenge is to come up with something new. But it will be about quality more than anything else. I don’t believe we need to blast Dog the Bounty Hunter to the moon to get ratings in the next season.”
While that suggests reality shows will remain as important a form of programming as situation comedies and scripted dramas, it also means that the genre faces the same limitations as the usual TV fare, warned Lifetime Television executive vice president of research Tim Brooks.
“They are going deeper and deeper into the barrel for celebrities,” he said, perhaps thinking of former The Partridge Family member Danny Bonaduce, whose VH1 celebreality series, Breaking Bonaduce, did not do well. “It’s getting now to be, 'So what?’ ”
VH1 disagrees, pointing to more-favorable ratings for the first season of Hogan Knows Best, featuring wrestler Hulk Hogan and his family. That series averaged 1.4 million viewers per episode.
The 2007 lineup shows signs of the genre’s maturity. Rather than finding the next Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, networks are tweaking existing formats, looking for shows to act as companion pieces for their hits or to develop spinoffs.
Cable networks are also employing traditional broadcast strategies like “hammocking” — launching a new series alongside strong established programs in order to drive viewer sampling. The Jan. 8 debut of VH1’s I Love New York, for instance, was hammocked between The Surreal Life and Hogan, and drew 2.8 million young adults, coming in at No. 73 for the week.
Networks are moving toward lighter, more-humorous fare and away from the mean-spirited nature of many earlier reality series, such as the ritual firings on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, said Brooks.
Now gaining traction: shows with a higher humor quotient, such as I Love New York.
“It’s almost a scripted comedy,” Brooks said. “The mother-in-law is a wild woman. There’s a guy cast to be 'the hunk,’ and a wild guy that’s dangerous and a kind of straight-ahead BMOC [big man on campus]-type.”
He added: “After a while people get tired of seeing other people back-stab each other.”
And since success begets success, viewers are likely to see more of what was on their screen last year.
If NBC, ABC and the now-defunct DuMont network were trying to find the next version of CBS’s I Love Lucy in the early 1950s, then it follows A&E’s rivals would do the same with its hit Dog.
That series averaged 2.2 million viewers in its third and most-recent season, its best ever. It has also accomplished the rare task of repeating well: It retained 80% of its original audience on average in reruns.
So it’s no surprise WE has readied Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter, starring a former female wrestler, for an April debut.
“If something succeeds, you can bet someone is going to copy it,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and research director at advertising agency Horizon Media.
And cable networks are becoming expert at spinning off breakout characters.
MTV spun the California high-school series Laguna Beach’s party-loving Laurie Conrad into The Hills (in which Conrad moves from Orange County to Los Angeles), while sister network VH1 has developed an apparent hit from Flavor of Love 2, by spinning off an obsessed and outrageous also-ran known as “New York.”
The Flavor follow-up, I Love New York, in which the jilted would-be lover of rapper Flavor Flav gets to pick her own love from among 20 male aspirants, drew 4.5 million viewers for its Jan. 8 debut, making it the most-watched program on basic cable in January among adults 18-34.
While some networks, like Bravo, eschew direct spinoffs, others embrace them.
“You’re placing bets on an X factor. What are the blogs talking about? What are morning radio shows talking about? Where is the heat coming out of the show?” said VH1 executive vice president and general manager Tom Calderone. “For New York, it was hard to ignore. It was taking her persona, which was big and huge, and flipping the table on what Flavor was.”
Instead of relying on spinoffs, Bravo wants to “grow organically,” according to Zalaznick, using related shows to introduce new ones.
Along those lines, Bravo will introduce Tim Gunn’s House of Style, a makeover show, to complement mega-hit Project Runway, the fashion design show he hosts. This is part of the network’s strategy to develop its own celebrities.
“It’s not a spinoff, not a competitive reality show … We want to show the full Tim Gunn and take him out of the role people have gotten to know him through one particular show,” said Zalaznick.
TLC’s upcoming slate includes a mix of shows designed to reinforce the “tools to live life” identity the network has established in the wake of its meltdown several years ago, when it failed to develop a successful follow-up to Trading Spaces, progenitor of the home-design craze. That show peaked at 3.1 million viewers in 2002-03.
But the average ratings for Trading Spaces fell by 50% in each of the following two seasons. It was still a good number for TLC, but demonstrated the network’s weakness.
TLC entered some dark days after the show’s peak, but the problem was not that it ran Trading Spaces into the ground. Rather, the network had no bench: there was no follow-up show to complement its star vehicle, insisted senior vice president for programming and development Christian Drobnyk.
“It’s not about one show, not about how many runs it had,” he said. “It’s about overreliance on one brand, about making sure your schedule has diversity.”
So TLC’s upcoming lineup includes My First Home, a home-buying companion piece to Flip That House; Clueless Closet, a fashion show alongside What Not to Wear; Family Surgeons, featuring a father-and-son team in the American Chopper vein; and an etiquette series, Mind Your Manners, for its lifestyle block. They’ll join freshman returnees tattoo parlor-set Miami Ink, home environment show Honey, We’re Killing the Kids; and the dwarf family of Little People, Big World, among others.
A&E is also pushing wrinkles on existing tacks in two entries, Sons of Hollywood and Patti Novak: America’s Toughest Matchmaker. Sons follows the offspring of entertainment icons such as Rod Stewart, Aaron Spelling and producer Jerry Weintraub as they party and pose in Tinseltown. Meanwhile, A&E’s Sharenow sees Novak as “the Dog of matchmaking,” spreading tough love to the dating scene instead of to bail bond jumpers.
Another mantra for cable programmers in 2007 is “balance,” making sure one format or program does not dominate a network’s schedule and overshadow its brand, as Trading Spaces did for TLC.
Competitors give Bravo strong marks in this area, noting how the network eventually developed strong series such as fashion design competition Project Runway and Top Chef to complement its 2003-04 smash Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. That proved especially urgent after that show’s audience fell by half in its second and third seasons. Queer Eye will end its four-season run this summer.
“They are all over the map,” said Fox Reality Channel vice president of programming Bob Boden.
Critics are also impressed. “Bravo is the force to be reckoned with in reality programming,” said Aaron Barnhart, a critic with the Kansas City Star and TVbarn.com. “The stuff they do gets such good numbers and such an upscale audience and magazine covers. They have figured out a way to do shows on TV and get an audience under 30 to watch and people in the media who are occasional viewers looking for trend stories.”
'ALL ABOUT BALANCE’
Even executives at VH1 — which has successfully tied its brand closely to the celebreality genre with shows such as Flavor of Love 2, I Love New York and The Hogan Family — said they understood the risks of getting tagged with such a narrow persona after the channel carved out an identifiable brand as a pop-culture destination.
“It’s all about balance. For us that’s a headline here,” said the network’s Calderone. “We push ourselves to look at a lot of different lanes of entertainment. When people come to VH1 they want to get different voices, different styles.”
Calderone points to VH1’s Rock Docs, a rock-related documentary series, as a place where the network can discuss more serious “pro-social” issues such as rap artist DMC discovering he was adopted and Courtney Love’s battle with drug addiction, to complement series like Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show and The Surreal Life Fame Games, which he readily acknowledges as “guilty pleasures.”
Which one of these shows will have the legs of MTV’s The Real World, now in its 18th season?
“It’s hard to predict. Mostly it will come down to interesting characters, interesting relationships, just like scripted shows,” said Turner Broadcasting System chief research officer Jack Wakshlag.
That’s why many cable programmers believe reality shows are here to stay, as the genre continues to adapt to changing tastes, fashions and fads.
In the end, they say, it’s still about great storytelling and three-dimensional characters. And luck.
“That’s the alchemy of programming,” said Bravo’s Zalaznick. “You can minimize risks all you can, but you have to believe in your gut.”