Real-Time Reality: Networks' New Shows Increasingly Treat TV Like 'Hunger Games'

Discovery, ABC and Bravo Among Networks Bowing Interactive Reality Series

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'Rising Star' contestants will advance only if enough live viewers vote yes.
'Rising Star' contestants will advance only if enough live viewers vote yes. Credit: ABC

In the post-apocalyptic world of the "Hunger Games," people sit glued to their TV sets watching children literally battle to the death. They cheer for their favorites and even send them supplies to help bolster their chance for survival.

While author Suzanne Collins created the "Hunger Games" in part as a satire, mocking our fascination with reality TV, broadcast and cable channels are taking a cue from the popular book-to-movie trilogy. And while no one will actually die in any of these shows (not yet, anyway) contestants' fates are increasingly being left up to the audience.

From Discovery Channel to ABC, the newest slate of reality shows are looking to engage viewers beyond just voting for contestants. The hope is these shows will create must-see moments that people will want to watch live, a win for both networks and advertisers.

This comes at a time when the water cooler chatter has shifted from who got kicked off Fox's "American Idol" to who was killed off on HBO's "Game of Thrones." The number of new buzz-worthy reality competitions outside of NBC's "The Voice" has been limited, and even "The Voice" is down 13% among 18-to-49-year-olds. Ratings for series like "Idol" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" have hit new lows this season. And Fox has canceled Simon Cowell's "The X-Factor" after just three seasons.

"There's never been a genre that has been hammered so much," said Ken Warwick, executive producer of the new ABC singing competition "Rising Star," who is best known for producing "Idol."

The numerous iterations of competition shows from singing to dancing to dressmaking, and everything in between, has forced a need for reinvention, he said.

"Rising Star" is Mr. Warwick's answer to the derivative nature of the genre. While series like "Idol" and CBS' "Big Brother" helped mainstream the concept of TV voting more than a decade ago, not much has changed since then. Viewers either pick up the phone, text or, most recently, vote via Facebook, Google and Twitter. Then they wait a night or week to see who their votes saved or kicked off the show.

"Rising Star," which is adopted from an Israel show with the same format, will air on ABC in June and will allow viewers to vote and see results in real-time. During each episode, contestants perform live, behind a screen. Viewers vote via an app as contestants sing, with results popping up on the TV, including the pictures of voters. The contestants need a "yes" vote from 70% of people signed in to the app in order for their screen to lift and for them to advance to the next round.

"People still like these shows, but every format has a sell-by date," Mr. Warwick said. The format of "Rising Star" will bring the focus back to the contestants rather than the judges, he added.

The real-time results also eliminate the need for a separate results show, where the need for filler is strong and ratings for some series have fallen.

TV networks have a vested interest in finding reality competition shows that work, since they are typically cheaper to produce than scripted series and deliver a higher concentration of the all-important 18-to-49 demo.

Beyond singing competitions, E! is developing a dating series with the working title "Love Live," where audiences will play matchmaker in real-time with real people's dates.

Bravo will also experiment with a real-time reality series with the working title, "100 Dates." The show follows New Yorkers as they search for love, with viewers interacting with the cast through social media to affect the story. "100 Dates" will be shot and aired within a single week, allowing viewers' commentary to have an impact.

"This is how people live their lives," said Shari Levine, senior VP of production, Bravo. "They live on social platforms where they comment, like and interact with friends. It's their currency."

But perhaps the biggest effort in real-time reality will come when Discovery Channel begins "Survival Live" later this year. The 42-day live, multi-platform event will follow eight people abandoned in a remote wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their backs. As Discovery live-streams their struggles, it will allow contestants to build relationships with the audience and appeal to viewers to send them much-needed supplies like water or a cell phone. It's then up to the viewers to decide whether or not to help the contestants, immediately impacting game play.

Discovery will air two episodes each week, one recapping what happened during the week's hunt and skill battles, the other a live "extraction" episode where viewers will discover whether contestants received the supplies they requested.

"It's more than just a popularity contest with viewers deciding who is voted off the island, "said Matt Kelly, VP-development and production, Discovery Channel. "They can actually change the dynamic of the show and that will be the evolution of reality."

"Survival Live" has been the most buzzed-about series among ad buyers coming out of Discovery's upfront, said Scott Felenstein, senior VP-ad sales, Discovery Communications.

While Mr. Felenstein declined to say what deals with marketers might look like, it is easy to imagine a water company or cell phone maker integrating products into the show. "A highly-engaged audience that's paying attention to the content makes brands that partner with the show stand out," he said. "There's been a lot of interest beyond just running spots."

Several networks have already been testing this real-time format, with varying degrees of success.

NBC aired "Million Second Quiz" last fall, a 24-7 trivia game that allowed viewers to play games at home for a chance to make it onto the live show. While ratings for the show, which was hosted by Ryan Seacrest, fell short of the hype, the peacock network did boast that 1.5 million people engaged in 28 million games, with more than 400,000 players earning enough points to qualify to play on TV.

Syfy also debuted "Opposite Worlds" in January, a reality show that split two groups into opposing teams to live in two different worlds -- one set in the past and one in the future. As cast members competed in a series of challenges, viewers weighed in live on social media, to help affect the outcome of each player's fate.

For advertisers, the appeal is obvious. "Live programming (sports, award shows, stunts) have shown a real ability to breakthrough and prevent commercial skipping," said David Campanelli, senior VP-national broadcast, Horizon Media, in an email. "And everyone is looking at how to capitalize on the second screen. These types of shows are a way to do that. Having said that, if the show isn't good and not one watches, it will fall flat."

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