Reality Television Is No Longer A Cheap Thrill

May 18, 2012

My TV habits are all over the board, but I tune into a fair amount of reality TV when I’m flipping through the channels.

Thinking back, I can even remember tuning into the first wave of shows created during the boom of reality television in the 2000s. Shows like “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, “Boiling Points” and “Joe Millionaire.” What? I never said they were good!

The boom that produced these shows over a decade ago was the result of the U.S. catching wind of the success of reality television outside the U.S., as well as its attractive economics.

X- Factor judges laughing all the way to the bank

Reality television has, up to this point, been an incredibly cost-effective way to produce original programing. In almost every line of the budget, reality TV is cheaper than scripted TV — the talent, the required crew, the sets, the location.

In addition to much lower production costs, the opportunities for additional sources of revenue, including product placement, are much greater in reality programing. Look at the challenges on “Celebrity Apprentice” for examples of organic product integration, and look no further than my colleague Scott’s post on product placement to see how difficult it can be to weave products into storylines in scripted television.

As a big bonus, top reality programs are popular enough to attract key advertisers and some shows even go to enjoy syndication success and strong DVD sales. It’s not hard to see why reality programing was so attractive.

Fast forward to today, and there’s an overabundance of reality programming. Last week alone, reality programs owned one-third of the prime time programming slots on network television.

To try to break out from the clutter of similar programming, producers are bringing celebrities on board to attract viewers and advertisers. These celebrities, often appearing as judges or hosts, are big news, but they’re messing with the economics that made reality programing so attractive in the first place.

Look at the money behind the judges table, for instance. On the “X Factor,” we have Britney Spears making $15 million this year and Simon Cowell an estimated $45-$75 million per season (including his role as a producer). Over on the other networks, Jennifer Lopez is taking home an estimated $20 million from “American Idol” and Christina Aguilera is banking $10 million from “The Voice.”

How do these salaries compare with other TV stars? They’re on-par with the actors leading some of the most popular scripted TV shows. Hugh Laurie on “House” is making $15 million a year, and the ladies of “Desperate Housewives” and Mariska Hargitay of “Law & Order: SVU” are all making around $10 million a year.

As salaries creep higher and more and more copy-cat programs appear, it will be interesting to see how many reality programs will stick around. It’s my guess that we’ll be seeing less big-budget reality programs and more scripted dramas featuring newcomers pretty soon as networks look for ways to cut costs. What reality programs do you hope make the cut?