The style of TV that most North Americans over 20 years old grew up with may still be hanging on, with popular shows like This Is Us, Supernatural, and Modern Family doing extremely well for their respective networks. But in the last decade or so, there has definitely been a power shift. Scripted shows, with continuous stories and character development that require teams of writers and set designers, have been pushed to the back seat. Now riding shotgun are multiple-baby families, racially stereotyped pastry chefs, and bug eaters.
Reality TV shows have practically dominated network and cable TV in recent years, but do these channels really benefit by airing wedding-hungry brides and toddlers in talent shows? The payoff is in the high revenue return and simple production value.
The Price of Talent
Reality TV shows aren't cheap to produce. In 2010, E! Online reported that a 30-minute reality show costs approximately $100,000-$500,000 per episode, the most recent figures available. This is in comparison to many scripted shows, for which the budgets can rival major movie releases.
But there are certainly differing factors to consider when comparing the production costs of reality TV shows and scripted ones. Naturally, reality TV shows require fewer writers, which helps lower the cost. In the past few years, salaries for popular reality starts have shot up exponentially. For example, actress and reality TV star Denise Richards is reportedly making $1 million per season on Bravo TV's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Smaller Networks and Channels
This cost advantage spills over into the smaller and emerging networks, many of which wouldn't exist without the low-cost advantage of reality TV. There are even two channels dedicated solely to reality TV: Fox Reality in the U.S., and Zone Reality in the U.K. Not mentioning MTV, which had a massive resurgence in the 2000s thanks to the format, Bravo, Spike TV, and TLC are all channels that owe much (if not all) of their current successes to real housewives, polygamists, and realtors hungry for a slice of fame.
The Perfect Placement
As well, product placement is much easier to digest in reality television. This practice, which generates advertising revenue for both the show and the network, hasn't been as prosperous for scripted TV shows. One of the reigning kings of reality TV ratings, American Idol, has dedicated entire skits during its show to Ford Motor Company, AT&T Mobility, and Apple iTunes. Survivor contestants have been rewarded with Snickers chocolate bars and Doritos nacho chips. This in-show placement accompanies regular commercial breaks and increases the value of advertisement for sponsors.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the biggest advantages reality TV shows have over scripted ones are financial, but that's no surprise. Also, the fact that reality shows are often used to deliver new content (and bring in ad money) while comedies and dramas are "off-season" is a major benefit. By filling the majority of a calendar year with "new" episodes of a show, networks and cable channels can capitalize on ad revenue for a longer time span—and there's little fear that a union strike will cease production in the meantime.