Back in the early 2000’s, millions of people gathered around their TV’s every week, eager to watch ordinary people experience the extraordinary. Now, 20 years later, it seems they’re more interested in watching those who have already experienced extraordinary things seem ordinary. Is the rise of shows like The Masked Singer and X-Factor Celebrity predicting a trend for the new decade?
Soon after the reality TV craze took off, a few television producers decided to subvert the trope of “regular people out of their element” and instead make it “famous people out of their element”. Dancing With the Stars did this by having celebrities learn and perform ballroom dances every week, and The Apprentice, which had already found success in its format with “nobodies” in the cast, soon realized the appeal of privileged celebrities learning how to work in a more regular job setting and created the spin-off Celebrity Apprentice.
But now the celebrity contestant competition is no longer a novelty: it’s the norm. Shows originally focused on people competing for the chance to become rich and/or famous have since gotten counterparts with casts made up entirely of people who are already both rich and famous. Big Brother has spawned a Celebrity Edition in multiple countries, the aforementioned Celebrity Apprentice started as a side spin-off but soon overtook the original series entirely, and of course, The X Factor UK became The X Factor: Celebrity for its series last year.
The Susan Boyle effect is an actual term that is used in modern psychology, describing the ordinary person’s suddon rise to fame. Boyle was the perfect “dream come true” example of the what made people tune in. They loved watching the girl next door named Kelly, turn into the Kelly Clarkson and the next American Idol. But seemingly the Susan Boyle effect is dying and shifting towards the T-Pain effect. T-Pain was of course the Monster who won the first season of The Masked Singer.
Even shows that feature fresh faces are finding more and more ways to include people fans are already familiar with and feel connected to. So You Think You Can Dance has “All-Stars” (AKA previous contestants) come back and dance with the current crop of competitors, even having said veterans compete in teams with the newbies in certain seasons (with many fan voting for their favorite All-Star instead of paying attention to the up-and-coming talent).
Survivor just had a season themed after the idea of old players mentoring new ones in Island of the Idols and – in a reality TV first – its next season will be entitled Winners at War and feature 20 previous champions as the contestants. The Got Talent franchise is doing something similar with The Champions, featuring casts entirely made up of previous fan-favorites.
And of course, the peak of this celebrity-based sub-genre thus far has been the worldwide explosion of popularity for The Masked Singer. Part singing competition, part celebrity guessing game, the show has quickly become the most popular singing show in the world, surpassing the likes of The Voice, American Idol, and The X-Factor, with British TV producers going so far as wanting to full-on replace the latter with a UK edition of Masked Singer.
Looking at reality TV now vs. 20, 15, or even just 10 years ago, it makes sense that there’s a shift on celebrities and gimmicky concepts. Most regular people who want to make it big nowadays have the internet as a tool to do so, which is arguably has its benefits over a reality show. The rate for TV contestants making it big has dropped dramatically, while more and more people are “making it” online via platforms.
As TV ratings fall with more alternative options for talent to get their “big break”, shows now need a strong hook to get eyeballs. Sometimes new ideas can be wildly out of touch with what people actually want to see, but we can’t blame them for trying. Fact is, it’s getting harder to find “average” people for viewers to fall in love with and get invested in. Bringing on people the audience is familiar with along with the promise of seeing how they “really” are is enticing to viewers. (And having people with pre-established fanbases on can’t hurt viewership either.)
But the aforementioned Masked Singer managed to subvert this formula as well. It hooked viewers with the promise of famous faces without revealing who they are, therefore, no existing fanbase. But it still worked out for them in the end, and that TV risk paid off. People tuned in initially to see the over-the-top costumes and participate in the guessing game, but stuck around for a different reason. Interestingly, they began to feel more and more connected to the contestants as they shared their stories.
It’s 2020; we’ve seen plenty of Kelly Clarksons and Susan Boyles break out over the years thanks to reality TV shows…and plenty of others ruin their lives under the pressure of them. Now we crave something more heartwarming, something more relatable. Ironically it’s taken the advent of celebrities – not generally the most relatable people – to achieve it. As the oft-meme’d saying goes, “Stars! They’re just like us!”.
Do you prefer reality shows with nobodies or celebrities? Let us know in the comments below!
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