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It Took a While, But Streaming Has Finally Embraced the Reality Competition

Netflix et al. are now delivering some of the genre’s best and most innovative shows.
  • (Photos: Netflix, HBo Max, Amazon, Hulu)
    (Photos: Netflix, HBo Max, Amazon, Hulu)

    Five years ago this month, Netflix announced that it was breaking into reality TV competitions. Its first attempt was a show you’ve probably forgotten, if you ever heard of it: Ultimate Beastmaster, a knock-off of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior. The show’s best idea was its obstacle course, which was designed to look like a giant metal monster, while the pools of water below were blood red. A few months after the show was announced, a fire swept through and destroyed Sable Ranch, the movie and TV location that hosted Ultimate Beastmaster. The beast, however, was still standing, and three seasons were eventually filmed on it.

    While the fire didn’t destroy the beast, Ultimate Beastmaster didn’t exactly destroy the competition. American Ninja Warrior is thriving, even filming a season mid-pandemic, and the beast is no more. Since then, streaming services have multiplied like Gremlins, and so have their reality TV competitions — and many of them have become a lot more successful than broadcast or cable shows.

    It’s important to note here that streaming services haven’t exactly taken over reality TV competitions, at least in terms of numbers. By my count, through the end of May, 31 competition shows will have premiered on network and cable this year, and 21 on streaming. (That doesn’t include primetime broadcast game shows, and is a somewhat arbitrary count, since the lines between game shows and competition reality TV are increasingly blurring.) There are more broadcast competition shows to come soon, too: two new Bachelorettes this year, and in June alone, Season 2 of Lego Masters; and more delight in the form of Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman’s pun factory Making It and ABC’s Holey Moley; and old standbys like NBC’s America’s Got Talent.

    It’s not just quantity. Broadcast and cable networks have aired some high-quality and highly entertaining competitions this year, from Top Chef winners having a blast on truTV’s Fast Foodies to Phil Keoghan’s emotional CBS competition Tough As Nails. Bravo’s Top Chef, which was filmed in Portland, has never been better. Meanwhile, streaming services have aired some real duds, like Netflix’s empty The Big Flower Fight.

    Still, I’d say that most of the spring’s most eagerly-anticipated competitions have been on streaming. The Paramount+ series The Challenge: All-Stars brought back old-school players who were originally on The Real World or Road Rules. Last year’s Netflix hit The Circle finally returned for a second season with a stronger focus on strategy and betrayal than Season 1. Besides The Circle, there were two other Netflix competition reality shows that broke through the overwhelming amount of content and news last year: Love is Blind and Floor is Lava. (Both will be returning.)

    The best competition show right now, the one I’d recommend anyone watch before anything else, is the absolutely brilliant Great Pottery Throw Down, a UK show that’s available in the U.S. on HBO Max, which just started streaming the show’s fourth season. It has what so many American competitions lack: real passion for craft on both sides of the camera, and warm, supportive environments. How many American talent competitions have contestants who help each other and cheer each other on, or have a judge like Keith Brymer Jones, who gets so emotionally invested that he often chokes up during judging?

    So many broadcast and cable competitions feel like they’re just going through the motions, from the music cues (Cymbal crash! Bowed cymbal noise!) to the judging (zzzzzz). It’s understandable: with lower budgets and falling numbers of viewers, they’re desperate to hold on to what they have, so they’re not going to take as many risks.

    Streaming services, however, can experiment a lot more, both with the content of shows and how they’re distributed. Netflix drops entire Nailed It! seasons in one batch; releases four episodes of The Circle at a time over one month; and streams new episodes of The Great British Baking Show every week, as if it was just normal TV. Discovery+’s great revival of Design Star had episodes that varied in length from 43 minutes (a typical hour-long cable show’s running time) to one hour and 10 minutes (close to the length of two regular episodes). Its content, not a need to fill an hour with a certain number of commercials, determined the amount of time each episode.

    The real breakthrough, though, is just the ability to play around more. After Ultimate Beastmaster, Netflix didn’t release a new reality competition show until 2018, when Nailed It! premiered. It became a breakout competition series for Netflix because it dared to be completely silly. Its host, Nicole Byer, improvises her way through two rounds of impossible baking challenges, lovingly mocking everything about her own show. It breaks the fourth wall and includes the kind of footage that’d be left on the cutting room floor on other shows—like a teleprompter’s failure.

    I cannot imagine a U.S. broadcast network experimenting with a competition like The Circle, where people spend an hour talking to screens, nor a show like HBO Max’s Legendary, which brings us inside ballroom culture and doesn’t really try to explain what’s going on. I can also not imagine a streaming service putting on a commercial for Wild Cherry Pepsi and pretending it’s a show (although Hulu does have a Samsung-sponsored photography competition, Exposure).

    Compare two similar shows: the dog grooming competitions Haute Dog, on HBO Max, and Pooch Perfect, on ABC. They’re both ethically questionable, with groomers spray-painting and bedazzling dogs, but Haute Dog is a joy to watch, full of puns and frivolity, and a retro game show aesthetic. Pooch Perfect has the bigger budget, but it’s a boring, empty shell. It’s not exactly trying to be a serious competition — the narrator is supposed to be host Rebel Wilson’s dog — but it’s a phoned-in, by-the-numbers competition that has no love or energy. It doesn’t even take advantage of having Bravo villain Lisa Vanderpump as a judge, because the judges add nothing.

    In the same way that streaming shows borrowed from broadcast and cable reality competitions and iterated on them, there’s nothing stopping old-school linear networks from loosening up and experimenting. ABC did that with Holey Moley, a perfect combination of legitimate competition and absurd ridiculousness.

    But it’s hard not to see streaming services as the place where there’s just more happening. They’re even playing around more in different genres. About half of the competitions I counted on cable and broadcast are food competitions, from Hell’s Kitchen to Tournament of Champions, while just over a quarter of the streaming competitions are food-oriented. Whether they’re staying in familiar territory, like Amazon’s Making the Cut, which was very much a global version of Project Runway’s format, or trying something totally new, like Netflix’s glass blowing competition Blown Away, streaming services are pushing past the normal reality TV competition boundaries, and giving linear networks some real competition.

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

    TOPICS: Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Prime Video, American Ninja Warrior, America's Got Talent, The Big Flower Fight, Blown Away, The Challenge: All Stars, Cherries Wild, The Circle, Design Star, Exposure, Fast Foodies, The Great British Baking Show, The Great Pottery Throw Down, Haute Dog, Hell's Kitchen, Holey Moley, Legendary, Lego Masters (US), Love Is Blind, Making It, Making the Cut, Nailed It!, Pooch Perfect, Top Chef, Tough as Nails, Tournament of Champions, Ultimate Beastmaster, Keith Brymer Jones