TV Darwinism: Overcrowded Market Will Lead to Fewer Shows, End of Reality Television Boom, Experts Warn

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When reality TV burst onto the scene in the late '90s and early 2000s, network execs felt like they'd struck gold.

Here was a niche filled with cheap, easy-to-produce fare that rarely relied on big-name stars who would only demand more and more money if the series became a success.

The early seasons of Survivor and The Bachelor delivered ratings on par with the era's top scripted shows for a fraction of the price.

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Of course, when Hollywood discovers that sort of recipe, it tends to cook up too much of a good thing.

And so, the reality TV craze quickly overtook the industry and began to dominate nightly programming -- first on the broadcast networks, then on the cable channels, and finally, on the streamers.

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Now, of course, that greed for inexpensive content has resulted in an unsustainable situation in which too many shows are competing for too few viewers.

It's a microcosm of what's happening in the television industry as a whole:

The era of Peak TV -- in which networks and streamers were routinely rewarded for rolling the dice on innovative original series -- has come to an end, and the future of television has never been more uncertain.

Here at TV Fanatic, we've already explored this debacle from multiple angles:

Earlier this week, we discussed the fact that a small handful of shows dominate the streaming market, creating a situation in which new series need to find an audience right off the bat or get axed after their first season.

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Prior to that, we delved into the fact that many networks and streamers are playing it safe by delivering "easy" viewing that can be enjoyed as background noise -- at the expense, of course, of the more challenging, adult-oriented fare that made the 2000s and 2010s such a great time for TV.

Today, we'll look into how all this cost-cutting and risk-aversion will impact the future of reality television.

It's a world that doesn't give rise to as many beloved stars as that of scripted sitcoms and dramas, so reality stars and the folks who work behind the camera to bring these shows to life might not find themselves receiving a tidal wave of sympathy from the general public.

Reality shows weren't as directly affected by the writer and actors' guild strikes as were other sectors of the television world, but the resultant constrained production budgets and industry-wide wariness have had an effect on everyone who makes a living from TV.

A new series of reports from Deadline has been examining the recent "Hollywood contraction" that's leading to fewer projects and fewer jobs.

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The latest installment focuses on the ways in which the reality TV bubble has burst, with networks and streamers developing fewer shows and ordering fewer episodes of the new series that do manage to get greenlit.

One agent told the outlet that people working in the unscripted business are currently “down, depressed, and scared."

The article includes accounts of Emmy-winning producers who are now working for DoorDash and Uber Eats in their free time.

“The top half of my roster is doing fine. The bottom half makes me think that a good 30% to 50% of [unscripted] production companies will be out of business in the next 12 to 18 months,” said a second agent with a large number of clients who work in reality television.

A third source coined a phrase to describe the current climate of cutthroat competition that defines the industry in 2024 -- TV Darwinism.

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“The sector’s too fat, there are more producers pitching shows than the system can support. This is literally TV Darwinism, it is survival of the best positioned,” said an anonymous producer.

“If you think about the business as a whole, it’s severely diminished. We’ve been through an explosive 15-year content bubble," the insider continued.

"There’s now a major contraction, and there’s just not enough money in the system to support all of the people who were doing what they used to do. There’s going to have to be air let out of the balloon, the market just can’t support it.”

Yes, even reality TV -- long considered the safe bet in an industry where there's really no such thing -- is experiencing the crunch of a TV landscape that's simply overcrowded with too much content.

Ironically, previous strike years actually benefitted reality producers.

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The long-running law enforcement docuseries Cops was a result of a 1988 writers' strike, and the 2007-2008 WGA strike helped create the current wave of reality programming that turned the genre into a full-blown cultural phenomenon.

But 15 years after Snooki and the Kardashians became household names, it seems that the novelty has worn off at a very bad time.

Audiences are less interested in new reality shows at a time when networks are generally spending less money and taking fewer risks on new content.

It's a trend that will likely lead to an even sharper downward trend in the reality TV industry -- and even if you generally stick to scripted shows in your own viewing, a shrinking industry with fewer options is bad for all fans of the medium.

What do you think, TV fanatics? Can reality TV make a full recovery, or is the whole genre headed for the graveyard? Hit the comments section below to share your thoughts!

Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.

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Reality TV Quotes

Very disappointed. Personally, I really don’t want to come back. I’d rather face the killer than backstabbers. At least I know what the motives are behind the killer.

Shirley

[To Andy] If I make it back here, your ass is grass! And I’ve made sure of that.

Kristen