Revisiting the Collective: AMC Dropping Its Reality Shows Signals the Downfall of a Once Powerful Genre

(CS: Remember that time I declared the death of Reality TV?
 I was never a big fan of the genre, so I was keen to declare its demise at any opportunity. In my defense, Reality TV has taken a huge dip with the rise of 'Peak TV' where every channel/streaming service wants their prestige big event series and dropping millions of dollars on it is considered a badge of honour. But reality shows definitely still exist as even Netflix has quite a few and there are channels like HGTV and TLC that are almost exclusively airing those style of shows. Also, remember when AMC was considered prestige basic TV, before they essentially became The Walking Dead network. This article for Collective Publishing was originally posted on October 15, 2014.)

Last week, AMC announced that it was dropping almost all of it reality shows with the exceptions being Talking Dead (CS: Can't get rid of that!) and Comic Book Men, which both have the envious advantage of having the smash-hit The Walking Dead as the lead-in. (CS: The original series is finally wrapping up this year, but I am sure it will be followed by fifty more spin-off, so don't fret.) This is a major shift away from the plans the cable channel had even just a few months ago. After it found great success in series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and of course The Walking Dead, AMC started creating a slew of original series, and that strategy brought in a small army of reality shows like Freakshow, Small Town Security, and Game of Arms. (CS: I have no memory of any of these shows ever existing.) At one point it looked like unscripted fare would start outnumbering original scripted entertainment on the channel. Yet now almost all the unscripted series that were renewed or picked up in the last several months are being abandoned, and AMC has committed to scripted entertainment in its original series division. 

The shift in direction of AMC is a sign in the changing landscape of television that a decade ago looked like would be completely dominated by reality TV. Network TV hasn’t found a new reality show hit since The Voice, and Fox’s heavily hyped Utopia has turned out to be a ratings disaster. (CS: The only recent Network TV reality series hit that I can think of is The Masked Singer.) The network’s fall line-up demonstrates that new unscripted entertainment is no longer the highly sought after Holy Grail. (CS: And now Networks barely have a 'fall line-up'.) It was only a year ago that Duck Dynasty landed A&E’s highest rating ever, and this past season has seen it tumble with way less than half of the audience sticking around. (CS: Wasn't there some kind of controversy that played a major part in the ratings tanking? I barely remember this show as well, and couldn't even tell you what it is about. A family that runs a duck whistle business?)

Reality television isn’t dead, and cable channels like TLC will ensure that it isn’t even on life support, but it is no longer a phenomenon that dominates the airwaves. (CS: I was 100% right about this. It no longer is the centrepiece of major networks, streaming, or cable TV anymore.) Shows like Survivor, The Voice and American Idol are still immensely popular but they aren’t the rating behemoths they once could claim. (CS: All three of those shows are still on, but American Idol was cancelled on Fox and then brought back by ABC.) The failure of X-Factor to become another major franchise for Fox was proof that reality competition shows are far away from being the once guaranteed success that they could brag about being a few years ago. The genre has gone from once capturing the imagination and attention of the viewing public to cheap filler entertainment that people like to have in the background or watch as their brain unwinds right before sleep. Reality TV will never fully evaporate from our culture but it is slowly becoming like game shows or soap operas, as entertainment that will likely always have an audience but isn’t firmly entrenched into the cultural zeitgeist. (CS: Traditional daytime soap operas are still around, but they're considered to be on life support with the long-running series either being cancelled or facing that risk.)

Of course, I must confess that I’m prone to relishing too much the chance to trumpet the fall of reality TV. The Voice and American Idol may not be at their rating peak, but they’re still two of the most popular shows, and the former is still one of the major reasons NBC has become a prominent network again. (CS: Now, NBC is considered the top network again after years in the basement.) Channels like The Food Network or TLC has their loyal followers and are almost completely stocked with reality television. (CS: If there are no Blue Jays games. The Food Network is often on in this house. To the point, during dinner my kids will channel Chopped or Beat Bobby Flay by rating my dish and deciding if I beat the fictional competition.) But the networks and cable channels grasping for prestige and high ratings no longer look into the unscripted arenas. As far as entertainment, reality shows have become easily consumed and forgotten entertainment rather than something triggering heated discussions during coffee breaks. (CS: My dogs have little interest in discussing any TV during our coffee breaks.)

A lot of the popularity of reality shows has come from the “staring at a trainwreck” mentality. It can be about watching lives that are worse than our own or people that happen to be far more eccentric and bizarre then we see ourselves as being. Successful trashy series like Jersey Shore or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo seemed to exist for a viewer to participate in a weekly ritual of mocking and laughing at the absurd and trying to comprehend how this could be any kind of actual reality. Most reality shows have never been enriching or thought-provoking entertainment that challenges or illicit heated discussions like the best of scripted entertainment. The shows that spotlight families or groups have always been notorious fads that fade in popularity much faster than a finely-crafted written story (or a well-produced documentary). The major exception are the reality competition shows like American Idol, Survivor, and Amazing Race that have proven to have long shelf lives even if they aren’t dominating modern pop culture conversations (and many people may not even realize those shows are still on the air). (CS: Everett's French teacher wants to talk Survivor with him every week.)

 A good scripted series has always had a strong rewatchabilitlity. (CS: A major proof is you can find many popular older scripted series on various streaming sites, but many of the once popular reality series seem to have been lost in the abyss and are much harder to track down.) This may be one of the prevailing reasons that many channels are refocusing on scripted over unscripted. Syndication remains one of the major sources of revenues for networks and studios, where they essentially give channels the rights to air all the past seasons of popular series (the land where Friends and Seinfeld will never truly leave us). The rise of Netflix and other streaming services have made it even more integral for networks and studios to have series that viewers desperately want to rewatch or catch up on via “binge watching” and have also provided another outlet to make money. (CS: Not only has this become even more of a thing in 2022, but now every streaming service is eager to either reboot or reimagine popular past entertainment into a series.) 

It is very rare a reality series ends up getting syndicated, and likely due to most losing their appeal after the first viewing. Netflix is rapidly becoming the place many go to check out series, and it doesn’t stream any seasons of shows like Survivor or American Idol. There isn’t really the nuanced storytelling and or complex imagery that warrant a second viewing when it comes to reality television, and if anything, they tend to be far less entertaining the second time around. The modern environment seems to be one where scripted entertainment can flourish even if reality TV is cheaper to produce. (CS: Cheap to produce and drew an audience was the main appeal in the 2000s. And it still exists now due to them being cheap even if it comes nowhere near drawing the same numbers, but at its costs, it doesn't need to do that. I do think that scripted eventually became popular again because of their rewatchability made them more sellable to steamers.) 

The rise of reality television likely always had more to do with it being much cheaper to make than a scripted shows that demanded things like actors and writers, Not every show completely took over popular culture like Survivor did when it debuted as throw-away summer viewing in 2000, but turned into giant that was getting coverage in every newspaper as if it was a sporting event. It only needed a decent following to be incredibly profitable, but ended up the highest rated show in television at the beginning. People started hungering for similar shows. As the 2000s progressed, it started to look like reality TV would completely replace scripted television, and it was becoming the most discussed and demanded form of entertainment (at least by Fox network executives). The dynamic and culture is changing again, and rise of “binge watching” and the high quality of cable dramas like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The Americans has brought scripted entertainment to its rightful place as ruler of television. Also, the popularity of self-produced shows on YouTube has replaced the need to find similar content on television. (CS: And YouTube is more popular than TV in younger demographics. Or maybe I'm aging myself. TikTok is more popular with the young whippersnappers.) 

One of the major aspects of television that has grown in recent years has been the TV Recaps. This is both at the professional and fan level. Usually, an hour after a popular show has aired, you can find a wide variety of recaps that tend to not only rundown the major events of the episode, but also predict and discuss future storylines or try to work out the show's themes and imagery. The medium had fostered heated debates and discussion in comment sections, and for some this part is more anticipated than the actual shows. Social media like Twitter and Facebook are lit up with discussions and passionate responses whenever a major thing has happened on a show. (CS: I feel like the lack of set air times has decreased the popularity of this form.) 

The fanbase thrives on these discussions not only because it becomes an outlet for them to share their visceral responses, but it allows them to connect deeper with show. It has also grown to a point that showrunners and writers will often interact on social media with fans during and after an episode airs. It is this ability to share thoughts and feelings that sometimes can even shape the direction of a series. It is a connection that can’t really happen in reality television. It is part of the reason that major pop culture sites like HitFix or Vulture rarely cover reality television and often focus on covering the weekly episodes of scripted series. This is a growing part of the culture, and likely can be attributed to the untightening of reality TV’s once powerful grip. 

Ten years ago, I was vehemently opposed to reality TV, especially since for a few years it looked like it would totally wipe out scripted television. Over the years, I started to accept its presence and even started watching shows like Survivor and I don’t immediately run out of the room when my wife turns on Chopped or MasterChef. My venom towards the genre has died down greatly, even if I don’t regularly watch it outside of recent seasons of Survivor. (CS: This has now become weekly family viewing.) 

I finally came to terms with the popularity and existence of reality television. I accepted that even channels with great track records for scripted fare will want to dip a little into the reality pool. Now that I’ve finally come to terms with reality television and no longer pray to the gods to vanquish it, it looks like my dreams of 10 years ago are becoming true. Reality TV is on a downswing and scripted television has reached a golden era with networks and channels constantly trying to find original series. 

I also have followed pop culture long enough to realize nothing lasts forever and what seems immensely popular now could be cancelled in a year. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that game shows would have had a renaissance in prime time (they were immensely popular evening entertainment in the 1950s) and become a rating juggernaut in 1999 when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became a smash hit for a short time. It only takes one idea to launch a popular series that enthralls a massive audience and then causes every other channel and network to scour creative minds for their own version. Reality TV is not only alive and stable, but one day it can become dominant and beloved again. For now, I think I’ll pass on trying to pitch that 24-hour channel that follows me typing away on my computer, accidentally tripping on my son’s toy cars, and trying to convince the dog that the living room isn’t his toilet. (CS: Now I have Danika's toys to avoid and two dogs to convince outside is better.) Maybe one day that will be the future of entertainment, but for now, I’m glad for the return of compelling and complex stories written by talented writers. (CS: Now, I can say there is way too much of any form of entertainment on TV and streaming. Even for those with a full-time job covering TV series, they can't watch everything that is considered 'must-see'.)