TV Q: Are Cancelled Favorites Actually 'Replaced by Reality-TV'? (Answer: No)

Hey, we all want someone to blame when something goes awry. And at this time every year, consumers of TV are quick to carp that their favorite scripted show — be it Limitless, The Family or Game of Silence — got cancelled “because of reality-TV.” The numbers, however, indicate that unscripted fare is no longer TV’s go-to filler, and thus no longer a proper scapegoat.

Having seen many a commenter lay blame for a fave’s misfortune at the feet of the Reality-TV Gods, TVLine sliced and diced the numbers several ways, to see if there is any support for the claim that scripted shows are being scuttled in favor of (cheaper) reality-TV programming — especially in the context of the most recent five years. What follows is by no means an acquittal of The Bachelor et al’s myriad transgressions, but an overview of today’s actual programming decisions.

As announced at May’s Upfront events, the upcoming 2016-17 TV season features a total of nine hours of unscripted programming (including neither sports nor newsmagazines, which are a constant). Specifically, NBC’s The Voice fills three weekly hours and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars occupies two, while Survivor, Shark Tank, Hell’s Kitchen and Caught on Camera are an hour apiece.

Yet five years ago, the fall of 2012 opened with 13 hours of reality-TV, including three hours’ worth of The X-Factor, a weekly DWTS results show cancelled-blurb-deleteand America’s Next Top Model. The fall of both 2013 and 2014, meanwhile, packed in 15 hours of reality-TV, with the latter hosting Fox’s short-lived time hog, Utopia. (Of course, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to, say, the 21 hours of reality-TV that clogged the weekly airwaves in fall 2008. Very dark times, they were.)

To recap, for our 140-character culture: Where The Big 5 just a couple of years ago unloaded 15 hours of reality-TV, now they are only airing nine.

Zero (0) new reality-TV shows were added to the broadcast networks’ schedules for the 2016-17 TV season, unless one counts Celebrity Apprentice‘s return (at midseason) from a short hiatus, with new host Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One might argue that reality-TV shows are used as “scheduling spackle,” and thus aren’t trotted out until later in the season, after a scripted show fails. And yet this past TV season closed in May with a total of 10 unscripted programs airing in primetime, on par with nine in 2012.

Of the 14 total hours of primetime real estate opened up by last season’s cancellations, exactly one — NBC’s Friday lead-off spot, which will continue with Caught on Camera (versus last fall’s Undateable/Truth Be Told sitcombo) — will be filled by an unscripted show.

The two blackest holes in modern-day primetime — Tuesdays at 10 on ABC, and NBC’s Thursdays-at-10 slot — have almost never been patched up with a reality-TV series, as tempting as it surely has been. ABC instead segued from Body of Proof to Private Practice, Lucky 7, Killer Women, Mind Games, Forever, Wicked City and Of Kings and Prophets, and only just recently filled the hole with the Shark Tank offshoot Beyond the Tank. Similarly, NBC has endeavored to cure its Thursday ills with any number of (oftentimes good) dramas, from Awake and Parenthood to Hannibal, The Player and Game of Silence.

Make no mistake, reality-TV is not without its shortcomings, and it does eliminate jobs for actors and writers. And lord knows, broadcast TV in the late ’00s did a terribly tawdry dance with the reality-TV devil, often at the sacrifice of worthy, if low-rated, dramas and comedies.

But given that the broadcast networks are opening their seasons with markedly fewer hours of reality-TV than just five years ago, no new such shows were added for the coming season, and only 1 out of 14 recently vacated primetime hours is being filled this fall with unscripted fare, the truth is that cancelled scripted shows tend to be replaced with… other scripted shows, ones that might deliver a better (or different) demo, or are owned by the network itself (but that’s a TV Q for whole other day!) — until, the hope is, one eventually finds an audience and holds down that particular fort.

So yes, be angry. Lament that a quality drama (Awake!) didn’t deliver bigger numbers, or wasn’t “given a chance.” Just don’t throw blame at reality-TV in a kneejerk manner, because that argument simply doesn’t hold in 2016.

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  1. johnhelvete says:

    Kudos for this article. It does seem to be one of the constant comments when a favorite network show is cancelled, that all there is on TV is reality programs, or there is nothing worth watching. Which is difficult to understand when there is reportedly over 400 scripted series on TV (network, basic cable, premium cable, streaming).

  2. kmw says:

    Very good article. As much as I dislike reality programs I have never thought they are responsible for scripted ones getting cancelled. There is so much that factors into networks decisions about programming. Also in todays television era it is so easy to turn the channel and find something else to watch because there is plenty of good television out there

  3. Kevin K says:

    Really wish that in the near future CBS should put The Amazing Race, Survivor and maybe Big Brother into retirement.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      I would say BB isn’t going anywhere, being a dirt-cheap summertime staple. Of the other two, I could see TAR — which already seems to be skipping a fall cycle this year — eventually taking a breather.

    • Ben says:

      Each to their own, but Survivor is pretty much at an all time high in terms of how good the show is over the last 3-4 years, so I can’t see it going anywhere for a good long while.

    • Annie says:

      Survivor gets around 8 millions viewers a week and continues to deliver year after year. I don’t watch BB or TAR but it seems like they have pretty loyal fan bases as well.

  4. Emor says:

    Don’t forget the Black Hole of Friday on Fox! In the ENTIRE history of Fox, very few scripted shows that PREMIERED on Firday made it to season 2.

  5. Amber says:

    Nope, I still blame the Kardashians.

    • I miss OLTL says:

      The Kartrashians sprung from the OJ mess. I blame him…. and cheap tv networks. I have no doubt the decline of the soaps started with the OJ mess….. And continuing with the lowest underbelly of “reality”

      • Larc says:

        You are putting blame in the wrong place. It’s the people who watch this crap that are to blame. If nobody watched, it wouldn’t be on.

      • James says:

        Soap opera writers and executive producers are to blame for the genre’s current state.

        General Hospital is supposed to center around the lives of doctors, nurses and their loved one but now is being ovverrun by mobsters (and at one point showed a machine that threatened to turned the world into ice). Days of our Lives had Marlene possessed by a devil, Carly buried alive by Vivian, and Theresa’s embryo left his mother’s womb to be encased inside Kristen. Oh and dopplegangers pop in and out over at Genoa City in Y&R, only to discover that one of them is actually a missing twin sister of a popular couple’s long dead daughter.

        Sure, there have been some decent stories as of recently but ultimately, their downfall as a genre can only be blamed by its inability to adapt to the times.

        • MissMel says:

          With the exception of the last example, all of those soap storylines you mentioned are at least 2 decades old! At that time, soaps were actually still doing well. As a life-long GH fan, I can tell you that the “machine that threatened to turn the world into ice” is known as the Ice Princess storyline and it was hugely popular. It was the first big adventure for Luke and Laura and contributed to their becoming a soap super couple, eventually leading up to their wedding which was the highest rated episode of any soap ever. As strange as it seems, those were actually the glory days of that particular show and it’s those storylines and characters that people miss.

          • James says:

            Such a shame, the actual hospital that the show was named after is treated as a mere backdrop when those wild sci-fi stories took over GH for a time.

            I recommend you watch Shortland Street. It’s an NZ soap that’s pretty much like GH where a lot is going on, from gangs to grand weddings to explosions to random death scenes but no people having surgeries to change their face or baby switches but there are babies nonetheless. But all those stories still circle back to the local hospital where the show is based on.

    • James says:

      And yet the center of the Kardashian empire is on E! and not on broadcast TV. Had that ben the case, we wouldn’t have The Royals and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.

  6. jj says:

    Very insightful article. Thanks!

  7. Sarah96 says:

    Great article and blaming non existent reality tv shows for there favorite shows getting cancelled is stupid..and here’s the prove. The demo is what counts nowadays and if shows are doing badly they will most likely take the cut..even if we all hate when that happens.

  8. Shaun says:

    The fact is Networks want that streaming money and you can’t really put reality shows on Netflix.That is likely why reality is dying on Network.Cable however seems to be multiplying them.

  9. Boiler says:

    I have noticed this concern most on the cable side although I would say we don’t really need multiple nights of the same show on network either

  10. RayQ says:

    Good article but….reality TV is simply the cheaper option to air and the ensuing train wrecks that usually come about when non actors blow a gasket over some situation usually involving questionable baby daddies or who can screw whom over in order to make the deal or survive on the island or whatever seems to be the route networks like to take. No actors or writers unions to contend with and most of the moolah made through advertising gets pocketed by the top network honchos. Scripted TV, though costly, is imaginative and better overall but it’s not the quickest path to an easy buck, no matter what the networks might try to say.

  11. Erin says:

    I’m finding its more so the instability of the networks where they rarely let a show prove themselves these dates, they look for short term rating solutions. If they acted like they do nowadays over a decade ago, shows like NCIS and Gilmore girls would have been cancelled or had much shorter lives. But then it’s a double edged sword and I can’t count of times I’ve read on some forum or message section like this where people have started watching a show after its finished or in its end days and then whinge about it being cancelled using the justification that they didn’t originally watch it because it’d likely get cancelled. One of my best friends actually said to me yesterday that she won’t watch a show until it’s got a season or more under its belt and she has feedback on it – wtf. People don’t give shows a chance because the network doesn’t give it a chance because people arent giving them a chance. It’s a horrid cycle. Some shows never deserved to be on air but there’s some excellent to out there that never found its footing because of this.

  12. George H. says:

    Why didn’t you factor in reality shows on cable networks? I mean, I am sure they take viewership away from the traditional broadcast networks as well and factor into the total viewership.

    • Rex the Wonder Dog says:

      Maybe if there were something good on network TV the cable channels wouldn’t be siphoning off viewers.

  13. Cat says:

    The problem is that all of the networks are focused on the 18-34 demographic and NOT on who actually watches the most TV…that audience being those of us in the “baby boomer” generation! The networks don’t care about how MANY viewers a show gets in TOTAL, just how many fall into that magical 18-34 category! And then they wonder why people don’t watch!

    • E. D. Boddy says:

      The theory is that 18-34 year olds are more likely, in the aggregate, to respond to advertising than older groups. They are also less brand-loyal, and are regarded as an easier “sell.” I don’t know if that’s efficient – since they AREN’T loyal, advertiser B can come in a few weeks later and easily undermine any gain made by advertiser A.

    • KCC says:

      The networks only care about what the advertisers care about. It is, after all, the advertisers that pay for everything on commercial TV. Once people reach a certain age, on average, they tend to buy the same brand soap, toilet paper, breakfast cereals, cars, etc. and they are less likely to try something new. You don’t need to advertise to people that are already buying your product or are not likely to switch brands because of an ad. 18-34 year olds are starting out on their own and buying things for the first time, Things mom and dad used to provide them. You get them to try your product and you have the chance to have a customer for life.

    • People over 50 watch more tv live and thus more ads and are easier to reach than 18-34/18-49 who don’t watch tv live and watch fewer ads

  14. grys03 says:

    Not sure what US free to air TV is like but in OZ it’s a constant barrage of reality TV.Our main stations in the 7:30pm to 9:30pm time slot contain on average
    13.5 to 14 hours of reality
    4.5 to 7 hours current drama
    12 hours of repeats from 80, 90’s & early 2000’s
    The rest is news, shopping & other.
    First run shows – such as S.H.I.E.L.D, Blindspot etc can often be found AFTER 11:00pm
    That’s the good news – it is much worse on weekends when reality TV is even more dominant.
    The 7:30-8:30 time slot in particular is pretty much dominated by reality & infomercial shows disguised as current affairs.
    Maybe we’re trailing the US in TV watching?

    • Nichole says:

      This is why I don’t turn the TV on any more!! Watch everything via the internet in one form or another. Was in a doctors waiting room early afternoon yesterday and channel 9 had Agatha Christie’s Caribbean Mystery on, which looked to be from the early to mid 80’s, it was 1:30 in the afternoon on their main channel!! Ugh!!!! Turn on Gem and it seems to be never ending re-runs of Everyone Loves Raymond lol. Home & Away and Neighbours should have been put to rest years ago too, sad state of affairs over here, American’s have no idea how good they have it TV wise!

  15. Temperance says:

    To be honest, TV shows are just honey to attract eyeballs to ads. If it attracts eyeballs, it doesn’t really matter much if there isn’t even the tiniest iota of quality (i.e. – The Bachelor, The Apprentice). What attracts eyeballs varies with time. But I still think you can say that that shows get cancelled or pulled) for unscripted TV since they usually play that junk in place of actual real, unaired episodes simply because more people leave it on the TV (even if they don’t really watch it). There is no real doubt that unscripted TV is cheaper, so even in the case where there is fewer eyeballs, there is still a higher margin,

  16. kay says:

    I don’t just blame reality TV. I blame unscripted TV shows which does not just consist of reality TV shows. Talk shows, game shows, extra news programs, judge shows etc, are also to blame. I grew up on soap operas and it used to be so that I had to choose which ones I could watch and which had to be recorded and it would be a least 10hrs of tv time right there, but now what used to be 9 soap operas has now been cut down to 4 over the years and that to me is just still so sad.

  17. Ally Oop says:

    Great article. Im thrilled that reality tv is falling. Currently, the only reality show I watch is Masterchef.

  18. Alicia Gray says:

    It may not be true anymore … but guys, c’mon please just stop watching them – let’s get that number from 9 to 0!! lol

  19. Jim J. says:

    If scripted TV shows being replaced by reality TV shows is such a bad thing, then what about live-action TV shows being replaced by animated TV shows? Animated/cartoon shows are also cheaper than live-action scripted TV shows. I guess this applies whether they are brand-new or are 30-plus years old.

    For example, a viewer may quit watching an animated show (like, say, “The Simpsons”) after its first few seasons upon discovering a new live-action show, and irrespective of whether that new show ends up a long-runner or a one-season failure, upon its end, that viewer may find out that the older animated program is still airing new episodes and has been renewed for another season, so he has no other option but to go back to watching that older animated show.

    This is why I have blamed both animated shows and reality shows for the live-action TV shows getting cancelled (usually those that are long-running).

    • Rex the Wonder Dog says:

      Why are animated shows cheaper? They still have to hire actors to do the voices and creating drawings is just as hard as throwing some furniture on set and filming real people sitting on a sofa. Where does doing animation save money?