Reality TV is getting a dose of reality.
According to ratings, the genre that has folks eating wiggly worms, living in houses equipped with countless cameras, backstabbing each other for million-dollar prizes or getting fired by Donald Trump (search) is losing its cachet.
So far this TV season, several reality staples have suffered declining ratings and a few newcomers have already been axed or cut down. The breakout hits have been — gasp — scripted.
"I definitely think the genre had reached a saturation point," said Michael Ausiello, news director at TV Guide Online. "I don't think the genre is dead by any means. I do think the weak shows will fall off quicker than they used to and the stronger ones will stay on.”
Old standbys like "Fear Factor" and "The Bachelor" have experienced significant ratings declines. Newer shows that initially enjoyed boffo ratings, such as "The Apprentice" and "America's Next Top Model," are also slipping. And "Last Comic Standing" was doing so poorly that NBC yanked it just before its finale and decided to air it on Comedy Central instead.
Meanwhile, the breakout hits of the season so far are mainly scripted shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," both on ABC (search). Well-written dramas like "CSI" and "Without a Trace" are also regularly among the top-rated programs.
"'Desperate Housewives' is getting 'American Idol' numbers," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television (search) at Syracuse University. The show was seen by 20 million viewers in its second week, down about 2 million viewers from its debut.
"Housewives" is also giving a boost to ABC, which has long trailed the other big networks.
"It seems like, of all places, ABC might have pulled a rabbit out of its hat," said Thompson. "'Lost' is also interesting and doing well. And ABC's supplementing those with 'Wife Swap' and 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.'"
Among reality shows, "Extreme Makeover" is a major hit, and ABC's "Wife Swap" — and FOX's version, "Trading Spouses" — are doing well. But new shows like "The Benefactor," "Renovate My Family" and "The Next Great Champ" have been greeted by viewers with indifference.
Ausiello said there's a simple explanation for the ratings: "Good shows thrive," he said. "Viewers are not really taking to the knock-offs and the copycats."
Among the hardest hit in the reality genre are the dating shows, which Ausiello says are the phoniest of the bunch.
"People are in on the joke that people won't fall in love and live happily ever after. And if they do, it's the exception," he said. "The argument can be made that all reality shows are not really that real. They are the most fake, the most contrived."
It's been four years since the first "Survivor" captured audiences' attention. Viewers have become more jaded and won't fall for just any reality gimmick.
"With reality TV, they can't guarantee the success any more, because the novelty has worn off. It used to be [that] people would watch because they were so new," said Thompson. "We'll reach some kind of equilibrium. In five years there will be fewer [reality shows] than now, but there will definitely be some."
Thompson likened viewers' appetite for more than just reality programming to the need for a well-balanced diet.
"You enjoy a rich, French meal every once in a while. You don't want to eat one every day, three meals a day," he said. "There's a demand for a varied menu."