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Reality TV Dominates Broadcast Programming/Falling Ratings Force Networks to Find New Ways to Distribute Content, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Reality TV programming began with the comic Candid Camera show in 1948.  Host Allen Funt filmed unwitting people reacting to rigged situations such as talking mailboxes.  Far less humorous but riveting television aired on PBS in 1973 when An American Family showed the unscripted breakdown of a marriage and the coming-out of a homosexual son.  The show attracted 10 million viewers.  More recently, unscripted life has been caught on videotape in shows such as MTV's Real World and Fox’s America's Most Wanted.  Other reality formats, including Big Brother, were pioneered in Europe during the late 1990s.

Today, reality shows such as Survivor and American Idol have changed the landscape of broadcast television.  Prime time schedules of the four major U.S. broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) are full of such programming.  At the Fox network, as much as 60% of the primetime schedule is devoted to reality programs.

One reason why this kind of programming is so popular with viewers is the suspense and drama inspired by challenges.  Will the hopeful young singer, whom viewers have come to know and love, win a record contract on American Idol?  Which contestant will be voted-off the Dancing With the Stars program after hours of grueling competition?

As a business model, shows of this ilk are providing advertisers with new means of reaching viewers with implanted advertising.  This is vital since, with the advent of DVRs, viewers are fast-forwarding through ads or skipping them altogether.  Survivor viewers saw events such as a participant winning a Ford F350 truck as a prize in a reward challenge.  NBC’s The Apprentice challenged its teams to harvest and sell Sue Bee honey in a supermarket.  This style of advertising is called product placement.  Another newly popular alternative to classic 30- and 60-second commercials is advertiser sponsorships.  For example, Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T sponsor American Idol, in its final season in 2016.

Low cost and quick production turnaround are key attributes of the reality business model.  The thirteenth edition of The Biggest Loser aired its first episode in early January 2012, a mere three weeks after the finale from the previous season.  A limitation to reality TV is that it often does not go into syndication, since the current nature of the shows is part of the appeal.  Syndication allows many other types of programs to be produced at a loss, and then generate profits when aired again.

Meanwhile, TV production companies are expanding their distribution efforts for all types of programming.  Faced by intense competition from the internet for consumers’ attention, networks are rightly concerned about keeping viewers tuned in.

Releasing programming on DVD, pay-per-view or on international markets are among ways for production companies to raise additional revenues, and more creative means are emerging as well.  For example, Desperate Housewives reruns are available for purchase by iPhone, iPod or iPad users, despite the fact that the series ended in 2012.  CBS sold replays of its CSI series and Survivor to Comcast barely hours after their first run.

Network TV is facing daunting challenges regarding its traditional, ad-based business model.  With viewers now enjoying multiple options outside of the major networks, advertisers may be less likely to invest in network ads, especially since cable networks are delivering on their promises of highly targeted audiences based on demographics that are more exacting and sometimes superior to those offered by broadcast networks.



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