The Block, FBOY Island and Rich Listers have all broken down in very different ways over the last few weeks. It could spell the end of a great NZ reality TV era, writes Duncan Greive.
It has been a torrid few weeks for reality TV in New Zealand. Three shows, each of which was announced to huge fanfare by their respective networks, all fell apart in different ways. Yet while each failing was different, and some far more morally consequential than others, the issues faced by The Block, FBOY Island and Rich Listers have threads in common. Collectively they suggest that this era of reality television, which has been so vital to linear television over the last seven years, might be drawing to a close.
It’s worth breaking down the failings into a kind of taxonomy of reality TV failure.
The Block’s auctions are the most recent and spectacularly public failure, beautifully recapped by Tara Ward here, yet the season had been quietly failing for weeks prior to that flameout. You might call this problem “no drama” – four returning groups who knew how to shoot reality TV and thus rein in any of the chaotic impulses which make the genre great.
This is the backdrop to what happened on Sunday, when the four Orewa townhouses spectacularly failed to launch at auction, bringing a collective $4,100 profit to the contestants in exchange for their months of epic workdays. It’s a cypher for a housing market which has gone from runaway to stalled over the past year, but both as a televisual event and an incentive for talent to join the show next year, it was severely compromised.
A different kind of scandal befell Rich Listers, a show on Bravo which purported to reveal the inner workings of the high end real estate market in Tāmaki Makaurau – but which the NZ Herald’s Ben Leahy revealed to be almost entirely faked. This might be called “no reality”, and is categorically different from the dramatic licence, cute edits and production prompting which are part of the assumed contract between viewer and show.
Rich Listers’ agents didn’t sell properties at the level they claimed, they drove cars they didn’t own, the listings were often not even with the claimed agencies, and the prices were essentially made up. It was almost entirely staged, in a very cynical style, and in so doing eroded the base layer of trust between audience and production required to make a workplace reality show operate.
The different failings of Rich Listers and The Block are ultimately of no real world consequence. They likely alienate some viewers and give those who dismiss the whole genre some fresh meat, but that’s show business – none of it really matters.
FBOY Island’s scandal is in an altogether different category. The show’s premise is that three women must separate a group of men into those genuinely seeking love, and a second group which are the titular F(uck)boys. It turned out that one cast member was a particularly dangerous and malignant example of the latter group, having been charged with suffocating a young woman he brought home. While he was ultimately acquitted, what he acknowledged during the trial was more than enough to suggest he was singularly inappropriate to appear on the show.
Call it “no vetting” – a lack of care shown in checking the cast were appropriate to appear on a show which requires immense vulnerability from the women involved. This has required extensive edits to cut the contestant out of the final product, and essentially doomed it before it even aired. This is far from the first time the casting of a New Zealand reality show has suffered a catastrophic failure, and each time it happens it confirms the worst fears of critics, who view the whole enterprise of love and sex-centric reality shows as suspect.
The end of an era for reality TV in Aotearoa
Reality TV has a long and proud history in this country. Popstars is rightly credited with being one of the shows that kickstarted the genre in the late 1990s, giving way to a plethora of original shows in the 00s. This was the first reality era, with numerous highly original and bizarre formats created, many of which failed (The Fence), some of which went on to become internationally successful (The Chair).
The second era was dominated by talent shows, with Idol, NZ’s Got Talent and then X Factor all capturing major attention during the last halcyon days of the monoculture. This gave way to the present era of multi-night epics, dominated by shows about finding love or making houses – The Bachelor, Married at First Sight and The Block.
There are signs that this third great era is drawing to a close. There are factors which suggest that we are in the twilight of this era, and perhaps even of the current style of the genre itself at a local level.
One of the most compelling elements of reality TV has been – Rich Listers aside – its largely unscripted nature. This is what made it appointment viewing even in the binge era – something you wanted to watch live and discuss on social media or at work the next day. But as audiences have fragmented and been lost to the likes of TikTok and YouTube, the unit economics of reality TV production have gotten more shaky.
This was first visible in stretching the same show which might once have made 40 minutes a week into 150 or more. Latterly it has been seen in the oppressive level of product integration in the likes of The Block, where it can be hard to know where the ads end and the show begins.
This is entirely understandable, as audiences are well under half what they were a few short seasons ago, and someone has to pay for the production. But it also creates a negative feedback loop, whereby the product placement drives viewers away, requiring yet more product placement (“I’ll just let you in using our Yale lock!”) to fund the show.
Perhaps more concerning for reality fans is the looming merger of RNZ and TVNZ. The government’s stated rationale for this is to attract younger and more diverse audiences, which might be seen as a boon for reality TV – shows like Love Island are among the last great unifiers of young global audiences. Yet as the furore around FBOY Island shows, it’s a difficult genre for the state to be involved in, and while the remit of the merged entity is broad, it’s hard to imagine some of the more crass reality TV franchises coming out of a new, more public-spirited media entity.
If that saves New Zealand’s women from the real dangers created by the casting failures of FBOY Island, that’s no bad thing. But spare a thought for a show like Celebrity Treasure Island. A dusty old franchise, revived to no great fanfare a few years ago, but which has proven durable and oddly emotive in recent seasons.
It more than fulfils TVNZ’s aspiration for Aotearoatanga, bringing together funny, entertaining New Zealanders from different generations together in windswept kainga, to play silly games and learn about one another in the process. On paper it’s absurd; on screen it more than meets the aspirations for all but the most old-fashioned charter.
Unfortunately, despite being a hit in lockdown last year, its ratings are well down in 2022. Add it to the broader malaise which has swept through reality TV over the past few weeks and it’s clear that the genre is at a turning point. Three very different failings have combined to suggest that an era is coming to an end, and we might be witnessing the end of a certain kind of reality TV. Many will call that a good thing, and recent events suggest they might have a point.
For all that, reality TV is an entertainment industry cockroach. Unloved, unfunded but very hard to kill. As much as one era might be ending, someone, somewhere is dreaming up the next.