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Summer Comes Early For Reality Television

As the scripted content well dries up, networks are looking to their store of unscripted summer programming to help fill the void.
  • Netflix's Queer Eye, ABC's Holey Moley and NBC's America's Got Talent (with new judge Sofia Vergara) are just a few of the shows headed our way in the coming weeks.
    Netflix's Queer Eye, ABC's Holey Moley and NBC's America's Got Talent (with new judge Sofia Vergara) are just a few of the shows headed our way in the coming weeks.

    Andy Dehnart knows reality TV. In 2000 he founded the seminal TV site reality blurred, where he's covered the world of unscripted television ever since. We're thrilled to welcome him as a contributor to Primetimer.

    Like lemonade and ice cream, reality TV is summer staple, but it wasn't always this way. Twenty years ago, television was a barren wasteland in the summer. As people packed their cars for vacations or went outside to crisp their skin in the sun, networks generally packed their schedules with reruns of their sitcoms and dramas that’d aired during the previous season.

    At the end of the summer of 1999, ABC launched Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which aired nightly over two weeks and debuted a full formed cultural phenomenon.

    In 2000, two days after Memorial Day, CBS launched Survivor. As 16 Americans were stranded on a small island in Borneo, playing a game to outwit, outplay, and outlast each other, ratings leapt by the millions week to week. The finale, when Sue Hawk delivered her snakes and rats speech, and the jury voted for Richard Hatch to win $1 million over Kelly Wigglesworth, was watched by 51.7 million people. In the decade that followed, no other show would have that many viewers except the Friends finale.

    Television had changed. Survivor and Millionaire proved what viewers of MTV's The Real World and Road Rules already knew — that real people could be as compelling and entertaining as scripted characters. And Survivor proved that people were ready and willing to watch new TV shows in the summer. Soon, summer became the place where broadcast networks aired signature summer reality TV or launched new shows (Fox’s American Idol).

    Now, 20 years later, summer TV may change again. But it won’t be as barren of fresh, new TV shows as it once was, or that you might expect given the circumstances in the world right now.

    The typically highest-rated summer reality show, America’s Got Talent, premieres next Tuesday on NBC with new judge Sofía Vergara. But half of the show’s season is usually live performances, and the show wasn’t even able to finish production on its pre-taped audition and judges cut episodes.

    American Idol was in a similar position, and moving its live shows to at-home performances worked incredibly well. That model may not work well for America’s Got Talent and its bombastic production values, which often include special effects, never mind group performances. A 20-year-old can sing in their living room; a 20-person choir can’t — or should not — gather to sing in someone’s living room with fireworks going off in the background.

    NBC’s World of Dance also premieres May 26, and it has completed filming its entire season. That’s one advantage to shows with A-list talent, which pre-tape their seasons early, often to accommodate their star’s schedule.

    Steph Curry’s ridiculously fun mini-golf competition Holey Moley II: The Sequel, which is back May 21, filmed its entire season over a few nights at the beginning March. And ABC has its full roster of light and frothy celebrity-hosted game shows: Match Game, Press Your Luck, Celebrity Family Feud, and To Tell the Truth.

    Still, there will be some notable absences.

    Love Island, the UK hit that came to CBS last summer and doesn’t pretend to be about anything more than summer flings, was supposed to premiere this week. It won’t; Fiji, where Survivor also films, isn’t even accepting international travelers.

    Likewise, The Bachelorette has been postponed, though ABC is committed to filming it as soon as possible. Far less likely to make it to air anytime soon is Bachelor in Paradise, while the Olympic-themed Bachelor Summer Games won’t happen, especially with the actual Olympics being pushed to 2021. The senior citizen version of The Bachelor will also have to wait for the world to return to normal before connecting older people who are desperate to find Instagram followers.

    ABC will fill some of that Bachelor franchise void with The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever!, which starts June 8 and will essentially recap past seasons.

    Bachelorette fans may find some comfort in Labor of Love, a new dating show that premieres this Thursday on Fox and follows a woman who is looking to become a mother. She’s using reality TV to audition men to see if they’d be good dads — or decide that she should have a baby on her own.

    Big Brother, which usually premieres in late June and takes up three hours a week on CBS’s schedule, never mind the 24/7 live feeds that fuel conversation on the Internet, is in limbo. Perhaps CBS will find a way to safely lock a group of people in a small soundstage house for more than three months. Or perhaps we can just use a break from the bigotry and bad behavior that inevitably erupts from that house, from its cast and producers.

    CBS does have a new competition that filmed last year: Tough as Nails, which is hosted by Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan and premieres in July. CBS says it "celebrates everyday Americans who roll up their sleeves and don't think twice about working long hard hours and getting their hands dirty in order to keep their country running," by putting them through challenges “at real-world job sites.” That may be the perfect show for this summer, or it may come across as pandering.

    Fox’s Ultimate Tag — which looks more like American Gladiators than a game of tag — doesn’t have a mission statement, just a lot of action. It’s also done filming and the season premieres Wednesday. Another new show is coming, too: CBS’s Game On!, which premieres May 27, and is basically Ellen’s Game of Games but with teams of celebrities captained by Venus Williams and Rob Gronkowski.

    These may be the kinds of summer reality shows that come and go, as so many have over the past 20 years. But streaming and cable networks will also have plenty of new shows that were already filmed, and new ones that are filmed remotely or by cast members themselves, such as Married at First Sight: Couples Cam.

    RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, which was going to move to Showtime, has been moved back to VH1, and starts June 5. Discovery Channel has a new season of Naked and Afraid XL premiering Sunday, while National Geographic is bringing Gordon Ramsay back in June for more of his obnoxious travels around the world with Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted.

    Netflix had three very summer-ish reality shows that it burned through earlier this year: The Circle, Love is Blind, and Too Hot to Handle. Last week, the network said its reality hit Queer Eye will return for its fifth season June 5th, but but the biggest new show it’s announced so far for summer is a new take on the Great British Bake-Off format, a flower-arranging competition called The Big Flower Fight, which drops today.

    And that’s just a few of the shows that have been announced. The volume may decrease, especially as we get into late summer, but it has been an absolute downpour: more than 125 reality shows premiered or started new seasons in March and April alone.

    So, this summer there will be no shortage of things to watch, just perhaps the absence or adaptations of some familiar favorites. That’s our new reality.

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    Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and teacher who reviews and reports about reality TV at reality blurred.

    TOPICS: Reality TV, Holey Moley, Survivor, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Game Shows