Does the nation have less of a spring in its step and fewer songs in its heart? No, we're not referring to the dreary economy, but rather the glut of song-and-dance reality programs that will spell the genre's eventual demise, if TV-network programmers aren't more careful.
ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and Fox's brand-new "X Factor" boast ratings any broadcast network would drool over in times of fragmented audiences and digital competition. But results for several of the new season of programs are not meeting buyer expectations, raising the question of whether the growing number of similarly themed shows are burning out or splintering audiences that might normally be inclined to tune into the best of them.
At ABC, "DWTS" snared around 16.5 million viewers overall last Monday night -- more than anything that aired on CBS, NBC or Fox. Yet those 16.5 million viewers are down significantly from the program's past season, when every episode secured at least 20 million viewers, according to data from Nielsen. More telling, perhaps: Last season, "DWTS" attracted an average of 5.6 million viewers between 18 and 49, the demographic most coveted by advertisers. This season, its episodes appear to be snaring between 3.7 million and 5.1 million.
Over at Fox, the much-anticipated "X Factor" has debuted to a very solid audience of about 12 million-plus , with more than about 5 million of that crowd between 18 and 49, according to Nielsen. Ad buyers point out that the ratings surpass what Fox was getting in the "X Factor" time slots last year.
Even so, "X" host and creator Simon Cowell crowed about getting 20 million viewers before the program launched. And according to ad buyers, Fox is not meeting the guarantees it made to advertisers when it sold them on the show. One person familiar with the situation suggested Fox guaranteed marketers around a 6 rating in 18-to-49 viewers, which would translate to approximately 7.6 million viewers in that demographic for the program. Fox executives declined to comment on the guarantees the network offered to sponsors.
"The one thing with reality programs we've all seen over the years is that when there's a glut of a particular type, it's usually not good for anyone," said Brian Hughes, VP-audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global. "What usually happens is the stronger ones will endure and the rest of them will go away," he added.
Fox's "American Idol" remains the kingpin of the category, continuing to lure the most viewers of almost any show on TV, despite a change in its coterie of hosts and its advancing age. Since "Idol" debuted in the U.S. in 2002, TV watchers have also been served up any number of similar contests: "DWTS" on ABC; "So You Think You Can Dance" on Fox; "The Sing Off," "America's Got Talent" and "The Voice" on NBC; and even CBS's now-defunct "Live to Dance," which featured former "Idol" judge Paula Abdul.
The mix will grow more complicated in 2012 when NBC launches the second season of "The Voice" just as "American Idol" returns to the airwaves.
The stakes are high. NBC, with little else to shout about so far this season, has been singing the praises of "The Voice" since last spring and is clearly counting on the program to help spark a turnaround. Meanwhile, Fox depends on "Idol" to help it keep its 18-to-49 viewership crown and also to draw audiences to other programs on its prime-time schedule.
For their part, the networks say they will still bank on the shows because in the short term, their performance trumps nearly everything else on the set-top box (save, perhaps, marquee sports).
Said Preston Beckman, exec VP-strategic program planning and research at Fox Broadcasting Co, "In the case of "X Factor,' I think the expectations were fueled by people outside" of Fox's offices, such as rivals, media and even celebrities on the show. Fox believed its ratings would improve if it had a reality franchise on in the fall, he said, noting the performance of other competition shows, such as CBS's "Amazing Race" and "Survivor." Citing "X Factor" as well as new shows such as "New Girl," Fox on Oct. 4 announced that its ratings among viewers 18 to 49 had increased 15% in the fall, and that "X Factor" had in its first few weeks retained 93% of the 18-to-49 audience that had tuned in at the start.
Fox executives believe "X Factor" has room to grow, a stance that could keep any demand for "make-goods," or ad inventory given when a program falls short of promised performance, at bay. In weeks to come, audiences will see some contestants go into a "boot camp" scenario and will start to see the judges align with different "X" hopefuls and start to compete against each other.
Likewise, ABC seems pleased with "DWTS." The show has brought ABC the greatest number of viewers for Monday prime-time TV, according to Nielsen data, and ranks in the top 15 among shows that draw adults 18 to 49 in homes earning more than $100,000 a year.
Yet long-term trends suggest some of the programs will face cancellation. Simply put, when every media company goes hunting for the same audience, a thinning of the ranks is inevitable. Take magazines in the late 1990s, when the market flooded with any number of titles aimed at young teens. Suddenly, many major female-skewing magazines had teen counterparts, from "Elle Girl" to "Cosmo Girl" to "Teen Vogue" to "Teen People," all of which did battle with established veterans such as "Seventeen," and "YM." Many of the titles have been shuttered over the past several years.
And that , said Mr. Beckman, is just the normal course for the business of the boob tube. "Imitation is the greatest form of television," he said.