Ask Andy: Do you miss the early days of reality TV? When will legacy shows get cancelled?

Near the middle of the 1960s, CBS and the other networks cancelled virtually all of their long-running game shows presumably due to declining ratings and wanting to go on a different path. Count amongst the casualties “What’s My Line”, “I’ve Got A Secret”, “To Tell The Truth”, the nighttime original version of “The Price is Right”, and so on.

A few years later, CBS virtually liquidated its inventory of rural-related programming (“The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Petticoat Junction”, “Mayberry RFD”, “Hee Haw”, et al.) for the purpose of starting new programming such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “All In The Family”, and others.

At the moment, the major broadcast networks have several extremely long-running reality series that may not necessarily be declining in production value, but are starting to show lower ratings. Examples – “Survivor”, “American Idol”, “The Amazing Race”, “The Biggest Loser”, “The Bachelor/Bachelorette”, etc.

Here is my two-part question for you. Part one — do you foresee a short order mass cancelling of these long-running shows similar to the aforementioned programming changes from the mid-60s and early-70s for the purpose of trying other programming or curbing declining ratings? Part two — purely from a ratings and costs perspective, which of the long-running shows do you suspect will meet its end the soonest and which do you suspect will last the longest? –Teg Allen

That’s a very interesting question with a very interesting historical observation. Also, I’m terrible at predictions, so I welcome insight from others who have a read on this trend and how it might come into play in the future. But I think the ways in which television has changed, including the broadcast networks facing serious competition from cable and other sources of content, means that there are different standards of success now.

I’d be surprised to see a network drop all of its old reality at once. The insecurity in the industry means we see shifts, but over time; Bravo didn’t dump all of its higher-quality programming for Real Housewives clones overnight. Fox did finally cancel X Factor, but has stuck with American Idol, which remains a strong performer despite declining ratings and media attention.

In addition, reality shows age differently. A scripted series is generally more expensive to produce the longer it’s on the air, in part because of cast salaries. In some ways, it can be easier to keep costs under control for a show that doesn’t pay millions of dollars in salary to its stars, i.e. contestants. Survivor, for example, has lowered costs by staying in the same location. And, of course, its prize has remained the same for 14 years.

Ultimately, I think the cop-out answer is that shows will be cancelled when the cost to produce them exceeds their value. The shows you cited are all aging, and have all had lower ratings, but each performs well in its timeslot, and that’s critical. I’d love to see a new, surprising, high-quality batch of shows take their place some day, but I’m also glad to see shows that have been around keep innovating to retain our attention.

Do you miss the early days of reality TV? I think a few posts ago you had mentioned how the phenomenon that was Survivor in its first season could never really be repeated again. Likewise, you seem surprised that the new Joe Schmo show could live up to how great the first season was. If there was such a thing as a golden age of reality television, it was most certainly the early ’00s. Do you think we’ll ever see a renaissance? Has the novelty completely worn off? –Taylor

I think I’m still in an odd kind of shock following my re-watch of The Real World season one last year, when MTV re-aired three seasons of the show. It really was like nothing I’d ever seen, as was Survivor.

So yes, I miss that sense of awe and wonder. I think am constantly searching for it–which is why I’m so hard on Survivor and The Amazing Race, because I want them to retain their awesomeness and not lose it to, say, corporate cost-saving or cynicism about the audience’s attention or intelligence.

Because there’s been such a massive proliferation of reality (and faked reality), so much of which is derivative of and/or builds on other shows, I’m doubtful something new can emerge that will shock or delight us in the same way The Real World or Survivor did. Instead, it’s now more about being delighted over the fragments of shows that give us something new.

But I would have said the same thing in 1999, and I have faith that the incredible creative minds in this industry will eventually deliver another game-changer that defies the risk-averse cynics who will reject new ideas until someone else makes the leap and gives them a reason to rip off that idea–and once again believe in the power of reality.

Have a question for this creatively named, irregularly published feature? Send it to me.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.