Features

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's... Reality TV to the Rescue

How the networks are delivering more new unscripted content this fall than ever.
  • Networks are packing their early fall schedules with fresh reality programming, including the Leslie Jones-hosted Supermarket Sweep, Clare Crawley's Bachelorette, a new Westest Link revival starring Jane Lynch, and the Ken Jeong-hosted I Can See Your Voice (Photos: ABC/NBC/FOX)
    Networks are packing their early fall schedules with fresh reality programming, including the Leslie Jones-hosted Supermarket Sweep, Clare Crawley's Bachelorette, a new Westest Link revival starring Jane Lynch, and the Ken Jeong-hosted I Can See Your Voice (Photos: ABC/NBC/FOX)

    While summer TV has been full of reality television and game shows in recent years, fall has remained the most traditional part of the network TV season. In 2016, just nine of the 91 hours on broadcast TV in the fall were unscripted entertainment. It’s increased a little since then, but still, even as streaming services upend the TV business, fall has remained the time when broadcast networks stick to the old script and premiere their splashy new sitcoms and dramas.

    Not this year. So what’s taking the place of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and This Is Us, or the shows that networks hope will be the next This Is Us? One answer: game shows. Along with some reality TV competitions, like The Masked Singer and The Bachelorette, they were among the first shows to go back into production this summer.

    Leading the way, as always, is ABC, which will give up two nights of its schedule to game shows: three on Sundays (Supermarket Sweep, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and Card Sharks) and three on Thursdays, starting tonight (Celebrity Family Feud, Press Your Luck, and Match Game). It’s been 21 years since the Regis Philbin-hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire first aired and became a cultural phenomenon, and while the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted celebrity version hasn’t drawn those kinds of ratings, ABC is relying on it and its other game shows much as it once relied on Millionaire.

    ABC started a prime-time game show renaissance five years ago by playing heavily on nostalgia. Recognizing the success that Family Feud had in syndication, ABC brought it to prime time in 2015 as Celebrity Family Feud, with host Steve Harvey. The following summer brought Match Game. The two shows gave ABC a template: a celebrity host, maybe also celebrity panelists, and a lot of nostalgia. And while they haven’t always worked (ABC banged the gong for Mike Myers in character as host Tommy Maitland on its The Gong Show revival), they’ve mostly done very well.

    ABC’s genius was that, instead of attempting to update or modernize these classic game shows, they recreated them — down to the music and the retro set design. On Match Game, Alec Baldwin carries a skinny mic, just like Gene Rayburn did from the 1960s through 1980s; the celebrity panelists still sit on a riser covered in orange shag carpet. Of course, the show is now taped in high definition, the graphics are crisper, and the celebrities drunker. But it’s hitting familiar notes, rather than trying to be new and slick, unlike previous failed reboots (2002’s GSN show Whammy! The All New Press Your Luck, I’m looking at you).

    Next up on ABC’s reboot list is Supermarket Sweep, which premieres Oct. 18, airing Sundays at 8. Its return, with new host Leslie Jones, was announced in January, with production set to begin in mid-March. That didn’t happen, of course, but it did quietly film this summer.

    Yes, while scripted shows have struggled to get back into production, unscripted shows have been quicker to find a way: ABC’s The Bachelorette taped its entire season in a Palm Springs hotel, creating a bubble for the cast and crew; ABC’s Shark Tank moved its production to Las Vegas to tape all of its episodes from the same city where CBS’s Love Island is taping on a hotel rooftop; and NBC’s American Ninja Warrior taped an entire season (albeit a compressed one), from qualifying rounds to the final course, inside The Dome in St. Louis.

    Game shows have more contestants rotating in and out, which makes it difficult to create the kind of locked-down, everyone’s-inside bubble like The Bachelorette. But game shows have an advantage because they can be taped quickly. That’s one of the ways ABC was able to get real celebrities to host their shows: they can tape an entire season in two weeks, burning through multiple episodes per day.

    NBC is following ABC’s lead by reviving The Weakest Link, with Jane Lynch hosting. It taped this summer, with social distancing measures in place.

    Many of the game shows we’ll see this fall, however, weren’t taped this summer. We can thank creative scheduling — not hand sanitizer and testing — for the fact that they’ll be airing brand-new episodes this fall. Since 2015, ABC’s game shows have mostly aired in its “Summer Fun and Games” block, but have actually been taped months in advance, meaning they weren’t affected by production shutdowns, so there are episodes just sitting around, waiting to be broadcast.

    While Match Game premiered its fifth season in late May, it ended up mostly airing reruns all summer long, as did Celebrity Family Feud. Just four new episodes of each show premiered over the summer, meaning ABC has the majority of their new seasons left to air this fall. Press Your Luck — with host Elizabeth Banks and the two-dimensional, crudely animated Whammy characters — did the exact same thing, with its second season airing just four new episodes. Card Sharks, also returning for a second season, taped in July and didn’t air any new episodes over the summer.

    Following The Masked Singer last night, Fox premiered I Can See Your Voice. Hosted by Ken Jeong, it's kind of like The Masked Singer turned into a game show, with a celebrity panel helping a contestant earn $100,000 by figuring out who among a group of people is actually a great singer, and who are just pretending to be singers. Like The Masked Singer, it’s based on a popular format from South Korea. Also like The Masked Singer, it was taped this summer.

    The details of exactly how these reality and game shows taped in the middle of the pandemic are vague, with the networks simply assuring us that they were “following production guidelines to ensure safety for cast and crew.“ It’s not clear who set those guidelines and/or what they involve. The reality is that most reality show cast members and contestants don’t have agents or a union representing their best interests, and most unscripted shows are produced by freelance, often non-union crew members. So one reason why there may have been more unscripted shows being produced this summer may be because it was easier to tape them, not necessarily because it was safer.

    Finally, there’s the most unusual case of The Amazing Race, the world-spanning competition which is impossible to produce amid a pandemic. Season 33 actually started taping in late February, but stopped just a few days in and sent everyone home. Due to a strange set of now-fortuitous circumstances, the upcoming season, which is Season 32, was actually taped way back in 2018, but CBS kept it on the shelf since then; not even its producers knew when it would eventually be broadcast. CBS did finally announce plans to air the Phil Keoghan-hosted competition this summer. But just like ABC and its game shows delayed their seasons, CBS ultimately decided to hold it for Wednesday nights this fall, and now The Amazing Race will fill in for another show that can’t be produced right now: Survivor, which itself may not return with new episodes until fall 2021.

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

    TOPICS: Reality TV, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, The Amazing Race, American Ninja Warrior, Card Sharks, Celebrity Family Feud, The Gong Show, I Can See Your Voice, Love Island, The Masked Singer, Match Game, Press Your Luck, Shark Tank, Supermarket Sweep, The Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Alec Baldwin, Elizabeth Banks, Jane Lynch, Jimmy Kimmel, Ken Jeong, Leslie Jones, Mike Myers, Phil Keoghan, Regis Philbin, Steve Harvey, Coronavirus