Do reality formats have an expiry date?

MasterChefWith MasterChef’s ratings showing fatigue, the lifespan of reality formats is in question. In a feature that was first published in EncoreMegan Reynolds asks how long shows can go on before they need to take a rest. 

How long can reality TV formats last? Do they have a shelf life similar to that of the many contestants they spit out or can they keep going for years and years? The question is no doubt at the front of the minds of executives at Ten who have watched the ratings decline of their once golden goose MasterChef. 

When Ten first announced the format, it was met with scepticism by those in the television industry as well as advertisers, although some were willing to embrace it including supermarket chain Coles.

Simon McDowell, Coles’ chief marketing officer, told the recent Mumbrella360 conference: “We were the first in when no-one else wanted to come and lots of other people have jumped in in the meantime. But Coles and MasterChef are kind of synonymous with each other.”

“MasterChef with Channel Ten has been a fundamental platform for us,” added McDowell. These comments were made in June and whether Coles is still thrilled in light of recent ratings will be determined by the ongoing support for the show in the coming years. That is, if there is another series in 2014 and beyond.

In 2010, then programming boss of Ten David Mott said: “I was talking to Mark Fennessy at Shine who came to us with the format in the first place and I said, ‘What do you reckon Mark?’ and he said, ‘No reason why we haven’t got seven, eight, 10 years in it’.”

While both Shine and Ten declined to comment for this piece, a spokeswoman for the production company was quick to point out that with the various incarnations of the show in recent years, this series is considered to be MasterChef’s tenth.

When it first premiered in 2009 the cooking show drew a whopping 1.42m viewers, a number which steadily grew until the finale episode peaked at 4.11m viewers. This year the series premiered to 1.1m viewers but unlike the first year’s growing audience, episodes are currently rating as low as 650,000 which would be a disappointment for advertisers lured by the show’s early record breaking success. However Natalie Kean, sponsorship and integration director at media agency Carat, says ratings aren’t everything.

“Ratings are just one part of the success of a sponsorship – albeit a big part – particularly when looking at exposure,” she says. “It really comes down to the client’s objectives and how engaged the audience is with the program. If a sponsorship is executed properly across multiple platforms and touch points, then I believe the reliance on TV ratings is lower.”

Kean says a client that sponsors a show will have more platforms and opportunities to reach the intended audience if TV does not deliver to the agreed benchmarks – think MasterChef’s pop up restaurants presented by American Express, Lipton and Alfa Romeo.

“We also need to consider that people are watching TV differently and make sure we take into account the viewers reached through other platforms such as catch up TV, IQ etc,” she says. “It is flawed to look only at television ratings and not take into account the other platforms where the audience may have been exposed to the client’s association with the IP of the program.”

Still, advertising is sold based on the number of eyeballs that will see the spots and when shows fail to deliver, networks are often required to dish out ‘make goods’ where ads get additional runs during other programs on the network. Regardless, the woes of advertisers doesn’t explain why audiences are deserting the MasterChef format. Alex Mavroidakis, executive producer of Big Brother, says: “Any series, any massive show that goes for that long, is always going to have natural audience erosion.”

He says that MasterChef, like many reality series, may just need a rest. Having worked on formats ranging from Temptation Island to The X Factor, and having seen first hand the rise, fall and resurrection of Big Brother over the last decade, Mavroidakis says all shows have their time.

“What Big Brother suffered from is the same thing MasterChef is suffering from now, the same thing that Farmer Wants A Wife suffered from, the same thing Australian Idol suffered from. Every show will reach a time when it needs to have a break,” he says.

For Big Brother, fatigue set in after an eight year run on Channel Ten and it was axed by the network in 2008 as ratings declined.

In November last year Mavroidakis told Encore that after eight years, the show had to resort to stunts to up the stakes for an audience that had seen it all in the earlier series. He said at the time: “If you feed an audience too much sugar, they need more and more so the more sugar bombs you throw in, the more audiences are going to expect. Big Brother is at its best when it’s a soap opera and the best scenes are always things the housemates come up with.”

There has been much talk of MasterChef’s spin off series Junior MasterChef and MasterChef The Professionals diluting the brand and the response to this season’s ‘boys versus girls’ approach wasn’t terribly encouraging with many suggesting the initial promo for the show was sexist.

When Big Brother returned to Australian TV last year after a three year hiatus, many of the stunts and tricks had been stripped away to make for a more simple show. However this year the Nine network is heavily promoting a ‘twist’ which Mavroidakis says he can’t talk about too much other than to say “2013 will be unlucky for some” raising suspicions that the show may borrow from the most recent UK version of Big Brother where the house was divided into “heaven” and “hell” with some of the housemates living in luxury while the rest had to hunker down in a basement-style environment.

Another issue plaguing reality formats is the audience response to the now standard approach of milking contestant sob stories, a move very much favored by the recent series of The Voice whose contestants’ hard luck tales were front and centre of the episodes. MasterChef has also shifted its focus in recent series to the back-stories of the various cast members – some would say to the detriment of the series.

The other question is how long all of these cooking and singing shows can continue from a casting point of view. Are there really enough amateur chefs and singers out there?

Graeme de Vallance of A Cast of Thousands has cast roles for shows such as MasterChef, Project Runway and The Biggest Loser, and believes that whatever the reality show, the characters are out there, he just has to find them.

“The most important thing is to spend the time researching, particularly when the show requires a skill set,” he told Encore. “It’s not necessarily harder, it just takes longer. You need the time to find the right people and make things as authentic as possible and I think that shows.”

A Cast of Thousands is currently working on another format that is about to enter the Australian TV landscape – the first series of The Bachelor set to air on Ten later this year and produced by Shine Australia. Its success will largely depend on casting but for now the focus remains on whether MasterChef has past its prime.

By Mott and Fennessey’s calculations it should have at least another year or two before it is has to be put out to pasture, but in the meantime perhaps the producers need to take a note from Big Brother’s playbook and get back to basics.

Encore issue 22This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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