Reality sometimes bites for UK’s broadcasters

Britain has become a nation of voyeurs, embracing reality shows such as Big Brother. But success is not necessarily on the cards.

Big Brother, Survivor, Popstars, The Mole, Jailbreak, Temptation Island, The Villa, Ibiza Uncovered, Eco Challenge and Driving School. All these TV shows have one thing in common – real people.

We have been living with this “phenomenon” of reality TV for some time now. However, it is only recently that you can’t turn on the television, open a newspaper or listen to the radio without noticing this broadcasting craze.

It’s not that surprising given the fact two of the UK’s largest commercial broadcasters, ITV and Channel 4, are battling it out in the ratings for the best offering in this “new” genre.

Actually, it is not that new. It’s just been reinvented out of the “docu-soap” or “fly on the wall” type programming which became popular a couple of years ago.

The difference this time is that there has been an extreme amount of hype surrounding both Survivor and Big Brother 2 (BB2), given the unprecedented success of Survivor in the US and the UK’s recent Celebrity Big Brother.

The majority of the national press gave Survivor a favourable review. Things were looking good for ITV, with the programme billed as the “biggest event of the year”. It also had a three-day head start on BB2.

But the reality has been a little different. With initial audiences for Survivor averaging around 5 million (well below the anticipated 10-million mark), a question begs to be asked: have we reached a level of saturation for this type of show in the mind of the viewer?

Yet, in the first ten days Survivor achieved a total of around 40 million adult impacts (a measure of TV audiences including repeat viewing) according to unofficial overnight figures.

Another plus for ITV is that the series pulls those elusive 16to 34-years-old adult viewers, which is a bonus for them.

BB2 peaked at around 4 million adult viewers in its first week. The proportion of 16-34 adults is, unsurprisingly, much higher than Survivor. It is also attracting a small, but loyal audience of insomniacs to its live broadcast on E4, Channel 4’s digital entertainment channel. Indeed, the viewer can witness events from the Big Brother house 24 hours a day, across Channel 4, E4 and the Web.

Success is largely down to the characters of the individuals “starring” in the shows. Ordinary people put into extraordinary situations makes for great TV.

Add to this their dim and distant (and mostly sordid) past being dragged up by the national media, and you have a formula that seems to work. But how long can this Truman Show-type concept remain fresh?

One thing is certain, they will have to evolve if they are to stay innovative, fresh and, most importantly, relevant to the viewer. As a nation of voyeurs, it seems reality TV is here to stay – for now.

Andrew Canter is head of broadcast at Media Planning Group

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