Reality TV has undoubtedly been a media juggernaut in recent decades. From Big Brother on Channel 4 to I’m A Celebrity on ITV1 and many other programmes on many channels in between, the format is indeed tried and tested for media executives up and down the country.
However, the goose that lays this televisual golden egg will not be doing so forever. With criticism often being volleyed in reality tv’s direction, accusations of it being a stale concept are never too far away.
At the same time, when a particular format variant captures the psyche of the nation, then the advertising revenue (or at least substantial viewing figures in the BBC’s case) will follow in abundance.
Although it does beg the critical question, just how long can and should a reality series last? Should you flog a dead horse, or should you wrap things up before the same horse shows severe signs of illness – something that we will look to answer in our latest analysis piece?
To do so, we have looked at arguably the 10 biggest reality shows that have gone on air in the UK since the turn of the millennium. The list can be argued but our contenders are:
|UK Reality Shows
Celebrity Big Brother
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Some of these programmes have had longer runs than others, some have already bitten the dust, and some are soon to be brought back from the dead. This means there are plenty of variables in the data we have analysed.
However, there is one way that we can look at each of the ten shows in the most equal way possible and that is by comparing the average viewing figures across the respective first season’s against the current average figure (or last).
When we do this, we have a table that looks as follows:
As you can see Love Island was rather unloved when it first returned after a 2015 reboot (ignoring the ill-fated celeb versions of the early 2000s). Just 0.57m viewers watched the first season and you would not have been surprised if another canning was to come soon after.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022 and with no World Cup to get in the way, the ITV2 headline act had recorded an average viewership of 4.46m – a 682.46% increase since the first ‘new’ series was shown seven years prior.
While Sir Alan Sugar’s reality juggernaut has grown leaps and bounds since its first series in 2005. The year when Tim Campbell would be the former Tottenham chairman’s new apprentice. A role earned after weeks of challenges; a role handed over in front of 2.6m.
Fast forward to January 2022 and the game has changed as far as the show is concerned. No longer are you hoping to be the chosen one, you are hoping to earn £250k worth of investment: new rules, the same level of intensity.
Not only has the game changed slightly, but so has the Apprentice’s televisual home. For BBC2 in 2005, read BBC1 in 2022 and beyond. While due to this change of channel, average viewing figures are now much closer to 7m.
The Apprentice game has changed now, where its not about landing a dream job with Alan Sugar but winning a 250k investment
Dan Tracey - Data Scientist - OLBG.com
7.09m to be exact and with BBC’s bigger brother now carrying the hopes and dreams of many a businessman or woman, it has also recorded a 172.69% increase in the average viewing figures from 2005.
Two incredible success stories it must be said and by the same token we should not overlook the pair of I’m A Celebrity or Strictly either. Impressive starts and increases still being recorded after all these years.
Signs that neither the ITV nor BBC bosses are prepared to can these two formats. Especially the former which saw a rebound after two years of decline in viewership. Although after two years in the Welsh wilderness, the COVID era closing was always going to welcome back former avid watchers.
Where will the Next Chop Come?
If these four programmes are the gold standard of reality shows, then the other six may be at the mercy of executives who are looking to change things up. When you consider that the X-Factor has already bit the bullet, the five below may be on notice.
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Simon Cowell’s music creation started off in a Popstars wasteland and initially recorded 7.4m viewers. Not a bad start and would almost double that at its peak in 2014. 14.13m saw Matt Cardle pip Rebecca Ferguson to victory. Whatever happened to him?
You could also ask whatever happened to the X-Factor itself. In fairness after a peak of 14m plus viewers, there is only one way to go but down and down the show certainly did. Year on year decline from there on in. Decline that looks as follows:
A 56% decline from the peak in 2010 to the final series in 2018. While there was nothing in the way of spikes in the eight seasons (8 to 15), not only was there decline but there was year on year decline. Enough for ITV to tell Simon “It’s a no from us”.
But what about Simon Cowell’s other ITV vehicle? That of course is the show Britain’s Got Talent, and the talent pipeline has kept viewers interested over the past decade. However, there is no doubt that the interest is staring to wane.
Back in 2007 the inaugural series saw 8.38m viewers glued to the screen, as Paul Potts warbled his way to success. Turn the page to the conclusion of this summer’s recent offering and only 6.36m saw Axel Blake come out on top.
Nearly a quarter of the viewership has been lost in 15 years. Not a crisis point but certainly food for thought for their executives, especially when you look at the downfall from the show’s peak in 2009.
Boylemania gripped more than 13m and although Susan missed out on first place, she won the nation's hearts. Diversity may have been the winners 14 years ago, but ITV would be celebrating all the way to the bank.
Since that peak of 2009, it has almost been year on year decline – bar a small rise in viewership in 2019 after 8.33m viewers in 2018. The trend is going the same way as the X-Factor, will this show soon have a curtain call of its own?
Then again, reality formats can just as easily be brought back from the dead and this is exactly what ITV2 have decided to do with Big Brother. After being moved on by both Channel 4 and Channel 5. It has a new home for 2023.
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They do say that a change is as good as a rest, and it remains to be seen if this will be the case for the forerunner of modern reality TV. Started as a simple ‘psychological experiment’ in 2000, it would be the launchpad for many contestants’ career in the media.
While it was certainly a launchpad for the likes of Craig Phillips and Anna Nolan 23 years ago. 4.44m viewers would be hooked on their dealings with ‘Nasty Nick’ and the fallout of this catapulted the show from experiment to pure entertainment.
Two years later, Kate Lawler was winning the 2002 edition in front of an average audience of 5.89m: the peak of Big Brother’s performance on either Channel 4 or Channel 5. It would take until series eight for the average to slip under 4m viewers.
As you can see Big Brother’s fate was not secured by year-on-year decline, more a case of a slow death. An average of 2.6 viewers in Channel 4’s last offering, an average of just 1.02 from Channel 5’s, it will be interesting to see what ITV2 can do with the show and its celebrity offshoot.
While no doubt Dancing on Ice is looking like it is on very thin ice. A staple of the January schedules started with 9.12m average viewers at the end of its first pirouette in 2006. That figure was as low as 4.78m in 2022.
A decrease of 47.5% in the 13 seasons that have followed since 2006. There is a 15th edition at the time of writing. Any lower than 4m on average and the ITV judges may give this one rather low marks.
However, Dancing on Ice could certainly have something of a saving grace and this that January is something of a televisual wasteland. Even 4m viewers is not to be overlooked at the turn of each year, it may still end up being worthy of a medal.
The Voice may not win any medals and in fairness, it may not win any awards either. It too has changed channels during its lifespan and after starting life on the BBC, it has since been snapped up by its commercial rival ITV.
8.54m viewers saw the likes of Becky Hill hit the high notes during the first series in 2012. However, that figure has slumped to 3.68m during the most recent offering on ITV. Then again, the bosses must have liked what they have heard, as a 2023 season has already been announced.
As we know, all these seasons will have different length in terms of lifecycle but there is another way to measure their current popularity. The way we can do this, is by comparing each show’s last average viewing figure and compare it to that of four series prior.
When we do this, here is what our table of 10 looks like:
Love Island has seen a 12.63% audience rise in that time, going from 3.96m to its most recent figures of 4.44m. This rise has seemingly bucked the trend of the other nine shows, who have all or did suffer a percentage decrease.
Admittedly Sir Alan Sugar does not look like he will be fired anytime soon and with just a 2.61% loss of audience figures during the same span, the BBC would be silly to hand him and the show a P45 just yet.
Britain’s Got Talent may finally be running out of notable contestants and viewers for that matter.
Dan Tracey - Data Scientist - OLBG.com
However, Britain’s Got Talent may finally be running out of notable contestants and viewers for that matter. It has lost 30% of its viewers since the fifth most recent edition of the show, 9.12m viewers has rapidly shrunk to 6.36%.
Big Brother got the chop after shedding 35% of its audience in the same period, the X-Factor suffered the same fate when losing 28% of its own. Simon Cowell may have recently refreshed the panel of judges but will it be enough to save the show?
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