The tradition for households sitting around the TV on an evening goes back to the earliest days of the technology. It’s the modern campfire, a place where stories are told and retold, whether that’s the speeches of Presidents or major live events that have shaped the cultural landscape of the US – or even the world.
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Tastes change though and, as soaps and traditional game shows fade into the background somewhat, our fondness for reality TV – dancing and singing – continues to pull in the numbers. America’s Got Talent (AGT), for instance, regularly attracts more than 9m viewers. And, while it frequently has to compete with shows like Bachelor in Paradise on ABC, AGT’s audience regularly places NBC firmly atop the ratings and viewership pile on the days it is broadcast. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the reality genre though is its global appeal. The Got Talent franchise is shown throughout the world, its success recently earning it a Guinness World Record for most successful reality TV format.
Across the Atlantic, where the Got Talent franchise began, the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing provides a clue to the success of reality TV. While YouGov simply describes the show as “charming”, placing it as the country’s 8th most famous TV program, Betway suggests that its diverse cast, which has ranged from politicians like Ed Balls to Joe Sugg, a millennial YouTube star, allows it to pull in audiences well beyond the reach of soap operas, for example. To put that latter point into context, soap opera audiences have been in decline for several years in the important 18-49 demographic, according to TV website SoapCentral. In the US, that includes old favorites like Days of Our Lives but, again, it’s a global concern; the UK’s EastEnders hit rock bottom, ratings-wise, in mid-2019.
Of course, it’s hard to deny the impact of high-tech, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime on the overall popularity of the more traditional cable networks but the former platform in particular has limited options as far as reality TV shows are concerned, reruns of Jeopardy! and Ultimate Beastmaster aside. In the UK, it’s slightly different. Sky’s Hayu offers British viewers a rare means of streaming US shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and RuPaul’s Drag Race at the same time they’re shown across the pond. It’s hard to see a niche, premium service getting in the way of the might of Strictly Come Dancing and the BBC though.
At the moment, challenges coming from streaming platforms and millennial indifference aside, reality television is still going strong.