Reality Ratings Slip: Aging Bachelors, Idols and Dancers Lose Their Bite

Rob Kardashian, Ricki Lake and J.R. Martinez on Dancing With the Stars (ABC)

Are viewers tired of accepting reality shows’ roses?

Monday night’s worst-ever ratings for a “Bachelor” finale reflect a troubling trend for network execs: Viewers are no longer as loyal as they once were to aging reality tentpoles.

Before Monday’s finale, “The Bachelor” averaged a 2.9 rating in the crucial 18-49 demographic – down 15 percent from last year’s average at that point. And the ABC series has slid less than some other reality shows.

Even reality franchises that are still drawing big audiences seem to have fallen off the cultural grid, “American Idol” being the prime example. When was the last time Jon Stewart or Jay Leno made an “Idol” joke?

As the reality landscape has become increasingly niche-oriented, with cable competitors creating battles over fashion design, hair styling and rapping, the result has been that no single show seems to fire up the entire country the way “Idol,” “Survivor” and other shows once did.

Gone are the days when catchphrases like “voted off the island” became late-night punchlines.

Dancing With the Stars” inflamed extreme conservatives by chosing the transgendered Chaz Bono as a contestant last cycle, but the controversy didn’t spark nearly as much outrage as when Bristol Palin made it into the final three in 2010.

CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” once a sure thing for best reality competition Emmy, is no longer a lock: Bravo’s “Top Chef” took the trophy away from the older franchise in 2010.

Networks still love reality competitions as a cheap, reliable source of ratings. Older competitions “American Idol” and “Survivor” draw strong ratings in the shrinking TV ratings landscape. But the decade-old “Bachelor” and 7-year-old “Dancing With the Stars” are not.

What’s the cause of decline? Overfamiliarity with the formulas and twists leave less room for surprise. An ousted bachelor returning to “The Bachelorette” now feels inevitable.

Meanwhile, the most successful reality show of the last decade, “American Idol,” has been punished for its success with a rash of imitators.

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The No. 1-rated show for the last eight seasons is down 28 percent on Wednesday nights and 25 percent on Thursdays. It still scores an enviable 6.7 and 6.2, respectively, on those nights. It is the second highest rated show on the air — outstanding for a decade-old series.

But a glutted market for singing competitions seems to have taken its toll. NBC’s “The Voice,” which debuted last year, is the top-rated show this season. Fox’s “X Factor,” which aired in the fall, earned roughly half the typical ratings for “Idol.” And this summer ABC will debut “Duets,” which will borrow inaugural “Idol” contestant Kelly Clarkson as its host.

Though it doesn’t get “Idol” ratings, “Survivor” does seem to be immune from cancellation – it’s still going strong after 12 years. CBS’s reality competition helped spawn all the rest, but its ratings are also down.

The last go-round, “Survivor: South Pacific” averaged a 4.0 rating and was the 21st highest-ranked show overall, and the fourth-highest rated reality show.

“Survivor: One World,” the current cycle, had a 3.2 and was the 43rd highest-rated show overall in its most recent ratings. It should be noted, however, that “Survivor” ratings climb with finales.

The fall cycle of “Dancing With the Stars,” meanwhile, was down 22 percent for its first weekly airing – averaging a 3.6 – and 17 percent for its results show, which averaged a 3.3. The show returns Monday, and no one in its cast looks as likely as Palin or Bono to capture the national interest. (I admit to rooting for Jaleel White. But is there anything controversial about the former Steve Urkel?)

NBC’s “The Voice,” which debuted last year, provides hope that a new twist on the old formula – with the right cast and right execution – can pay off. So it isn’t that it’s impossible to create a new reality giant.

But it’s hard to say how much mileage remains on the older ones. “Idol” managed last year to rebuild itself, adding new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez in place of Ellen DeGeneres, Kara DioGuardi and Simon Cowell. But the addition of “X Factor” to the Fox schedule — complete with two former “Idol” judges — reduced its anticipation factor.

“The Bachelor,” meanwhile, has cannibalized itself with not only “The Bachelorette” but “Bachelor Pad,” which brings back previous contestants on both shows.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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