NZ broadcast TV’s desperate attempt to grab viewers with a reboot of the ’90s hit Popstars is doomed to failure. PAT PILCHER explains why.
New Zealand TV back in the day was truly something to behold. Our own home-grown Radio With Pictures inspired the global phenomenon that is MTV into existence. Popstars (which propelled TrueBliss to stardom in the ’90s) inspired countless other music talent reality TV shows world-over.
Sadly, since then things seem to have gone backwards. Nowadays, Kiwi TV broadcasters are staring into the abyss and not liking what they’re seeing.
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With over 80% of New Zealand homes able to connect to fast fibre broadband, streaming HD or 4K with HDR and ear-tickling Dolby digital has become the norm. Unlike Sky TV, most streaming services don’t inflict adverts on paying subscribers. Players such as Netflix and Amazon have become big-budget content production powerhouses with TV shows such as The Queen’s Gambit, The Expanse, For All Mankind and other smash hits.
While TVNZ still accounts for the lion’s share of viewers for their evening news bulletin and a few other flagship shows, the bulk of their content seems to consist of low-fi adverts interspersed with increasingly dire reality TV filler.
There are sound commercial reasons for this. Reality TV is cheap to make. You don’t need to build costly studio sets, nor do you need to employ expensive actors. You can shoot on location and use ordinary people who will often work for free. Throw in some trashy adverts and in-show product placements and you’re onto a nice earner. The only problem is a growing number of viewers are tiring of reality TV.
Outside of New Zealand, the reality TV trend appears to be finally running out of steam. US TV show executives use one word repeatedly when summing up the situation with reality TV: fatigue. One former US network TV chief has been quoted as saying that reality TV “…seems tired. It seems derivative…There hasn’t been a really loud, innovative reality show in a while.”
It isn’t hard to see why viewers are so tired of reality TV. While wall-to-wall reality shows on all channels were the norm not so long ago, the genre became increasingly samey-samey. Shock revelations and twists that once amazed became yawn-inducing wallpaper as copycat shows sprung up. At the same time, a mass migration of viewers to streaming services was already well underway.
While the reality formula was hugely successful with shows like Popstars back in the ’90s, things were quite different back then. There were limited viewing options (only three TV channels, no broadband). Most TV shows were viewed on an appointment basis. The audience parked their posteriors on a sofa and grabbed the TV remote at a pre-determined time to get their fix. Further helping things along, reality TV was a fresh change from the then usual scripted TV fare.
Since things have thankfully changed for the better. Viewers can now watch what they want when they want. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Apple TV, and Acorn TV have no adverts. Their content is usually of an extremely high calibre.
Bizarrely, TVNZ ignored the waning fortunes of the reality TV genre as well as the harsh realities of today’s streamed video-on-demand marketplace. They’ve tried to embrace the past by re-launching Popstars, and in an unprecedented move, TVNZ aired the rebooted Popstars pilot episode on both TV One and TV2 simultaneously.
In the old days, this deft manoeuvre would have ensured solid viewer stats as they’d have had a mostly captive audience. Nowadays, it could only be politely called a risky move. Aside from the fact that viewers have a huge array of viewing options, bumping the hugely popular Fair Go show from its regular slot saw TVNZ attracting the ire of the show’s fans – most of whom wouldn’t be seen dead watching Popstars.
Having alienated the traditional audience for this timeslot, TVNZ must have assumed that the “yoof” segment would be lining up to watch Popstars. The only problem was that a good chunk of this demographic was probably already watching Netflix. This is backed up by the ratings. While TV One had 544,400 people watching Popstars plus a further 288,300 viewers on TV 2, overall ratings were down compared to Fair Go’s most recent episode, which reached 647,600 viewers. Predictably, TVNZ’s Facebook page was awash with complaints the following day, with one angry viewer commenting that “Popstars has been off the air for 20 years for a reason”.
Only time will tell if Popstars sinks or swims as it moves to its regular slot. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that questions need to be asked around just what it is that TVNZ can offer both contestants and disgruntled viewers with the show.
Back in the day, broadcast TV was one of a few hard-to-get platforms for performers to reach a nationwide audience. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop/tablet/smartphone can reach a global audience via YouTube. However, increasingly wary TV viewers, tuning in for a brief respite from reality, are now looking elsewhere for escapism.
Viewer feedback on the Popstars reboot has been pretty damning. One viewer commented that “I watched half of it, was terrible… Reality tv by the numbers. Not sure what they could have done to make it any worse than it was. It was inoffensive, devoid of personality and bland, just so fucking bland. Not even the cutaway shots of Auckland were any good – the one thing they could have got right”.
This leaves TVNZ with a bit of a problem. Multinational streaming players such as Netflix, Amazon and others all have colossal production budgets that dwarf TVNZ’s. They’re not reliant on advertising to fund their production either. This begs the question: What has TVNZ got to offer viewers that they can’t get elsewhere aside from news, weather and sport? Somehow, I doubt doubling down on more reality TV is the answer.
Most viewers have moved on from reality TV, and even though it is cheap to make, fewer people want to watch it. Perhaps TVNZ could embrace some viewer reality and investigate NZ made drama as a compelling point of difference to compete against offshore content and keep viewers engaged?