A recent article on tech and media site BGR suggests that streaming platforms like Netflix are killing reality TV. Author Brian Reed points to some compelling evidence that the cord-cutting generation is losing interest in reality and flocking instead to prestige dramas like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, prompting a resurgence in scripted TV. Meanwhile, reality mainstays like Survivor and Big Brother haven’t enjoyed the same kind of boom, remaining confined mostly to withering broadcast networks. Reed makes a strong case, but he might be missing the larger picture. Traditional reality TV isn’t thriving on streaming platforms, but it’s far from dying.
While it’s tempting to look at streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu through the same lens we use on network television, the comparison isn’t quite one-to-one. Even in the age of DVRs and watch-anytime programming, TV still relies heavily on scheduling, and that means that appointment viewing still matters. If you need to put eyes on screens at specific times you can’t do better than competition-based reality TV. Much like sports, which also haven’t thrived on streaming platforms, reality TV is best consumed fresh, making it a better proposition for networks than for platforms like Netflix, who don’t mind if viewers discover a show months or even years after it first goes live.
The other reason streaming platforms have likely shied away from reality programming is prestige. Though it seems like we’ve been living in a Netflix world forever, the truth is that streaming television has only recently gained the sheen of legitimacy conveyed by a shower of award nominations and Emmy wins. Reality is a winning proposition for network television because it’s comparatively cheap and quick to produce. For streaming platforms with no schedule to fill and a very real need for critical buzz, reality looks more like a poison pill than a miracle cure.
While it’s true that highly produced reality programming like Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians haven’t been embraced by platforms like Netflix, the reality genre is living large online through digital extensions and aftershows. Logo smash RuPaul’s Drag Race commands a substantial audience with it’s uncensored wrap-up show Untucked, and the Big Brother franchise has turned paid subscription live-feeds into essential viewing for fans. One could also consider first-person vlogging, a genre that continues to undergo explosive growth on platforms like YouTube, to be a part of the reality TV movement.
The growth of streaming platforms like Netflix has put enormous pressure on broadcast networks that produce new content which is both fast and cheap. For the last two decades reality has been the fast and cheap solution for networks who needed to tread water. Far from killing reality TV, the rise of Netflix may ensure that it outlives everything else on television.