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Tough reality as recession hits unscripted shows

November 18, 2008 |  5:37 pm

Is the recession driving viewers away from reality programming?

There has been so much chatter about politics and the economic meltdown on TV this fall that it's obscured another reality: Some of the networks' biggest unscripted series have been sinking in the ratings.

New York-based ad firm Horizon Media today delivered an analysis of Nielsen Media Research data for broadcast series during the first two months of the TV season, compared with the same period last year. The verdict? Established reality-competition and game shows, including "Dancing With the Stars," "Survivor" and "Deal or No Deal," are suffering a slump almost as bad as the larger economy's. 

Hardest-hit is Fox's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," which has shed nearly half its share of the 18-to-49-year-old demographic since last year (from a 2.5 rating to a 1.3). Among all viewers, "5th Grader" is off 35%, to 5.5 million. 

Almost as bad is NBC's "Deal," with the Wednesday edition plunging nearly 29%, to a mere 8 million viewers, compared with last year. The Friday airing has performed even worse, falling 38%. ABC's "Dancing" is down 9% — despite Cloris Leachman's unlikely tenure on this fall's edition — and CBS' "Survivor: Gabon" has dropped one-tenth compared with last fall's "Survivor: China." Even Fox's "Cops," which in March celebrates its 20th anniversary, has tumbled 17%.

Now, it could be argued that all of network TV is down. But virtually all of the series that have shown improvement this fall are scripted shows. Among them: NBC's "30 Rock" (up 23%), the CW's "Gossip Girl" (20%) and CBS' "Ghost Whisperer" (8%) and "How I Met Your Mother" (12%).

So, what's up?

Part of the explanation is TV's natural aging process. Many of the reality shows currently on network schedules are, not to put too fine a point on it, old. "Survivor" is in its 17th cycle, an eternity given that TV lifespans roughly approximate dog years. "Dancing" is winding down its 7th season, the time when most series begin to show signs of wear. And efforts to pump in new blood have not been successful: Take a look at ABC's "Opportunity Knocks," which got the hook after three airings this fall.

Overexposure is also a factor. "Deal or No Deal" at one time looked like a fairly durable game concept. But multiple weekly airings, plus a daytime syndicated version that launched this fall, have beaten the life out of the show. Stashing more money in those prize briefcases, as producers have done in a bid to woo viewers, probably won't help.

And what about that economy? Well, hard times may not have any direct effect on what people choose to watch. But there's little doubt that during times of upheaval, viewers' tastes can shift. For example, the deep recession of the early 1980s may have created a fertile environment for the success of nighttime soaps about the treacheries of the rich and infamous, such as "Dynasty" and "Dallas."

Thus, at the outset of what looks to be another deep recession, the sudden success of once-suffering comedies such as "30 Rock" and "Mother" is striking. As the Dow continues to spiral down and jobs dry up, viewers may have decided that their everyday lives already contain more reality than they can bear. 

—Scott Collins

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