Gary Levin, USA TODAY
What's the life cycle of a reality TV family?
Shorter than it used to be. For the Kardashian clan, the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty and the family of beauty pageant contestant Alana Thompson (aka Honey Boo Boo), the limelight is fading. All three shows returned last month with depressed ratings that dropped sharply from their peaks — some set just last year — though each still claims a sizable audience by cable TV standards.
A&E's Duck Dynasty premiered little more than two years ago and peaked last summer with an astounding 11.8 million viewers, setting cable records for an unscripted series. Though it remains a cable hit, its audience is now one-third of that total. E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians has had a longer run, opening modestly in 2007 and climbing to 4.8 million viewers in 2010 as the family gained international fame. But since then its ratings have been cut by more than half. And TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, introduced in August 2012, now has half the audience of its early highs.
It's not that viewers are tiring of reality TV families: They're just tiring of these families, who join a long list of clans who wore out their welcomes, including Fox's The Simple Life, which introduced sisterly (if unrelated) Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to the masses; TLC's Kate Plus 8; MTV's The Osbournes; and then-Newlyweds Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson (she remarried Saturday). Some built slowly through word of mouth; for others — including Simple Life — it was all downhill after their first episodes.
"The more novel a show is, sometimes the faster it burns out," says former MTV programming chief Brian Graden, who oversaw the rapid rise of The Osbournes and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. "You watch it for the jaw-drop factor." He says part of The Osbournes' initial appeal was "seeing extraordinary celebrities living ordinary lives," but more than a decade later, the explosion of social media means "it's a given that people open up their entire lives." Constantly mutating spinoffs often hasten the burnout factor.
Andy Dehnart of RealityBlurred.com says real families thrive as TV magnets when they're "surprising or interesting or unique," but many quickly lose the authenticity that made them popular and suffer as a result. "A lot of shows resort to increasingly contrived situations, where they're playing to the cameras or faking things or both." That's what happened with The Osbournes, Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty, where producers often invent situations to maximize conflict or comedy.
"People are beginning to realize that reality shows are not reality shows," says genre veteran Joan Rivers, who stars in a reality series with her daughter Melissa. She believes Honey Boo Boo has "grown up too much" and says the Robertsons "totally ruined themselves" with patriarch Phil's comments about gays and blacks, But, she says, "the Kardashians will never leave us, because they keep growing us new ones."
Keeping Up With the Kardashians (E!)
Premiere (10/14/07): 898,000
Peak (2/21/10): 4.8 million
Recent (6/29/14): 2.1 million
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC)
Premiere (8/8/12): 2.3 million
Peak (9/11/13): 3.2 million
Recent (6/26/14): 1.7 million
Duck Dynasty (A&E)
Premiere (3/21/12): 1.8 million
Peak (8/14/13): 11.8 million
Recent (6/25/14): 3.4 million
Jersey Shore (MTV)
Premiere (12/3/09): 1.4 million
Peak (1/20/11): 8.9 million
Finale (12/20/12): 3.1 million
The Simple Life (Fox)
Premiere (12/2/03): 13.0 million
Peak (12/3/03): 13.3 million
Finale (5/12/05): 3.8* million
*moved to E! where finale (8/5/07) was 650,000.
The Osbournes (MTV)
Premiere (3/5/02): 3.2 million
Peak (4/23/02): 7.8 million
Finale (3/21/05): 2.1 million
Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (MTV)
Premiere (8/19/03): 2.5 million
Peak (1/21/04): 4.7 million
Finale (3/30/05): 3.4 million
Kate Plus 8 (TLC)
Premiere and peak (6/6/10): 3.4 million
Finale (9/12/11): 2.1 million
Special (6/26/14): 1.9 million
Same-day audience in total viewers. Source: Nielsen