Over the last couple of decades, the nation has been enthralled by the phenomenon of reality TV. The idea of watching real people, doing real things, live on television was an idea that has fascinated and captured the majority of us.
The genre first started with The Real World in 1992, a program which ran on MTV looking into the lives of a group of people aged 18–25, usually representing different races, genres and sexual orientations. It wasn’t until the launch of Cilla Black’s Blind Date, however, that reality TV really kicked off and this was then followed by Big Brother and Survivor, both of which were not only global successes but became global franchises spawning dozens of countries around the world.
It’s no surprise the world became obsessed with these shows. They allow us to feel emotions and connect with people from the comfort of our own homes and in the company of our friends and family. They make us laugh, cry and even celebrate and the industry cleverly responded to this by launching more and more new programs following the same theme but with a different twist each year.
Over the past few years, it appears the magic has started to fade, however, as the TV ratings of some of the biggest and most popular reality shows continue to fall. X Factor’s viewing figures steadily fell from an average of 14 million viewers per show in its peak (2010) to 9.6 million last year and Britain’s Got Talent’s viewers fell from 13 million in its peak (2009) to an average of just eight million last year. The Only Way is Essex, which started in 2010, had its peak viewing figures back in series three with an average of 1.7 million viewers (2011), as did I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here which peaked in 2004 at 11 million.
The latest series of Britain’s Got Talent which came to a close on the weekend had a promising start with the launch show having the highest number of viewers in the programmes existence, however, on Saturday night ITV drew its lowest ever audience for a BGT final with only 10.7m people tuning in. This was despite the excitement of an 80 year old woman being swung around the stage by her 40 year old dance teacher, a magician freeing himself from a straitjacket to escape the jaws of death and new operatic boy band Collabro being crowned winners.
Is it true to say therefore that the advert including the judge’s children, which aired in the run-up to the series, is what boosted the show’s ratings at first? It got people talking, created an initial stir and buzz around the show and put it back in the press and on people’s radars. Or, was it the introduction of the big gold button directing contestants straight through to the live finals that created initial excitement and intrigue from the British public? It certainly created more opportunity for coverage within the press as we found out which acts each of the judges chose for their one selection.
Either way, the excitement quickly dwindled and interest was rapidly lost. So as a nation are we too accustomed to the shock and drama of reality TV now or are we just bored of watching talent shows where the majority of contestants have little to offer?
New reality TV shows with slightly different twists are airing the whole time, such as the current Ex on the Beach which first aired in April of this year, but viewing figures of these new shows aren’t reaching nearly as high as before. The highest viewing figure Ex on the Beach has seen for example is 789,000.
This year will see the return of Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole to the X Factor to try and bring the viewing figures of this show back up. The move has again caused controversy following Simon and Cheryl’s public fall out a few years ago and has therefore expectedly generated a lot of media attention. This can only leave us wondering whether the X Factor 2014 viewing figures will shoot back up too and if so, for how long.
With the new (and eleventh!) series of TOWIE starting last night, we look into the status of reality TV stars and what this can mean for brands.
Looking back at the golden Hollywood era, celebrity and stardom was something to be admired, with them being haloed as these god-like beings. Fast forward 80 years, and the concept of celebrity has never been so accessible. With developments of television and the internet, people can now immerse themselves in a world of celebrity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Reality television has only added to our obsession of fame, creating a new breed of celebrity for the British public to admire. Yet these celebrities are different. They are portrayed in the media as being normal people, making it possible for us to relate to them, and for this reason, they have now become so popular.
The power of reality TV stars
Reality TV stars have become just as influential as the A-listers, developing a power to influence what we wear, where we socialise, what we eat and what we do in our spare time. They have become trendsetters in their own right, with us looking up to them, wanting to imitate their lifestyle. Made In Chelsea for example, the cast are admired for their good looks, nice houses and excessive lifestyles. The show plays on many people’s fantasy lives and for this reason, we are hooked on finding out more about them.
What does this mean for brands?
Reality TV celebrities are extremely lucrative for brands. Lipsy for example, has utilised the power of the reality TV star to drive sales to its target demographic of young celebrity-driven women. Faces of the brand have included Made In Chelsea’s Caggie Dunlop along with selling TOWIE’s Amy Child’s and Lydia Bright clothing ranges to its target consumer, offering them the chance to have a piece of the celebrities lifestyle.
PR agencies have capitalised on this, realising the reality TV celebrities are influential, accessible and inexpensive to hire for their client campaigns. Every brand from fashion, beauty, sport, exercise and lifestyle has employed a reality star in some way, in the knowledge that they will boost sales and drive exposure to the brand.
Remember the formation of Hear’Say, Darius’ incarnation of Baby One More time, the launch of Pure and Simple as it catapulted its way to the top of the charts? Popstars felt like revolutionary, ground breaking TV! And when Simon Cowell took control of the reality TV reins, he upped the ante considerably – the formula was taken up a gear, the chemistry of the judging panel was thought about more, the hapless, whimsical, downright toe-curling auditions took centre stage, the reality TV landscape was evolving internationally (Big Brother, The Real World, Making The Band) and as a result, The X Factor, at its peak, was enticing 20 million viewers.
But this month it was nationally reported that The X Factor’s viewing figures had plummeted to record-low depths with a meagre 8 million viewers. Moreover, the Daily Mail made a point this week of commenting on the return of recently evicted contestant Nicholas McDonald to Glasgow Airport – notably highlighting the fact that there were no fans present to greet him.
So, the golden question: has reality TV, now a patch on its glory years, lost its mojo? The amount of viewers tuning in may suggest so. Can ITV still legitimately justify commanding astonishingly high prices for TV ad spots during this show when viewing stats aren’t too far removed from certain soaps and cookery shows?
A show of this stature is expensive to make – fancy lighting, marketing overkill, celebrity salaries, telephone voting…it’s not a cheap operation and a show so heavily invested in has to justify its worth. With TV pundits speculating that it may get the heave-ho, and with its sister show in America not performing as well in the ratings as originally hoped for when it was first commissioned, I’m not sure what the future holds if the format doesn’t evolve along with its audience, with contemporary culture, current trends and public viewing preferences.
I think the key lies largely with the judging panel. Does somebody who has no experience whatsoever when it comes to performing, to being a recording artist, have any right to make or break aspiring musical talent? The producers need to keep the show fresh by reinventing the judging panel to reflect current tastes and trends. Sure, chemistry is hugely important but so is license to comment and to judge. Peoples’ dreams are at stake here…surely constructive criticism can only truly be levied by someone who has the experience – the chart success and performance history – to impart it?
What I want to see from the show is longevity. Not a rush-released ‘debut album’ from the winner that’s full of cover versions. Not a vocal-gymnast winner whose only merit is shattering glass with a 7 octave voice. There’s nothing wrong with exploiting such a massive platform to get your foot in the door, but I want to see a winner with conviction about the artist they want to be, the music they want to make, passionate about the producers they want to collaborate with. A composer. A song-writer. An artist, not a puppet, who has a career spanning many albums. Someone who wants to be creatively involved in the direction of their own career. This could inject any music reality show with a much needed credibility that reinvigorates viewing figures.
I’m not a hardened cynic and when these shows have a ‘good year’ with a stronger-than-average contestant pool, things can be great! Carrie Underwood – irrespective of my questionable proclivity for country music – has commendably established herself as an artist separate from any kind of TV launchpad. Kelly Clarkson is drowning in richly deserved awards and she has never been afraid to experiment with her sound and diversify. And Little Mix’s newly released sophomore album Salute is awesome stuff, a proper, incredibly executed R&B record with tight harmonies and plenty of sass.
I’m sure many people may disagree with my views but the spiralling ratings prove that love and appetite are dwindling for these shows. Don’t even get me started on Big Brother…once Channel 4’s flagship show, ratings ebbed to such a low that it got the chop and moved to a much smaller network…What do you think that reality TV needs to work on in order to stay fresh, relevant and commercially lucrative?