Sometimes even the number one TV network in Australia gets it wrong. But this badly?
When Seven announced their latest foray into reality television as The Big Adventure it was easy to be sceptical. The Network were light on the details until the last minute, and all the (multiple) promos offered was the all important “who’ll dig up one million dollars?” hook. Over and over and over and over again.
The premiere offered promising numbers (945,000 5 city metro, 19 Oct 2014), but then it was simulcast on 7Two and was the lead-in to the penultimate episode of this year’s The X Factor Australia. As is fashion these days it’s rare for a new show to bounce up over that premiere figure and the slide began from episode two and hasn’t stopped. While the numbers aren’t entirely horrible (or even as low as Ten’s primetime offerings) the return for an expensive new reality format certainly isn’t there. As it stands if the show is seen through to the pre-recorded finale it looks to take the unwanted title of “lowest rating television program to give away one million dollars”.
Given CEO of Seven Tim Worner recently assured media buyers at their 2015 upfronts that the Network’s plan was to remain number one until at least 2020… this isn’t the best of starts.
A sure sign the Network has lost faith in the show is the now obligatory timeslot shunt – it settled into Sunday 6:30pm/Monday 7:30pm and in the last week has moved to Sunday 7:30pm (against 60 Minutes?!) and this week has been pushed further back to 8:35pm on Sunday and wiped entirely from Monday’s line-up. So what happened? Why has their big new format – from the makers of huge successes My Kitchen Rules and House Rules – failed?
1. Too much Kool Aid was consumed by the programming team.
When you’re number one it’s easy to think you can do anything. Seven have turned more sow’s ears into silk purses just because they’ve programmed it right over the last few years than they probably deserved to. When it comes to reality TV My Kitchen Rules has grown year-on-year over the five seasons it has been on air to be arguably the highest rating reality show in the country. House Rules found it’s feet this year too. So it’s natural to expect the team responsible for these two mega-integration opportunities (aka product placement) to be able to create a new show that would fill that awkward run to the end of the ratings year.
For every success they’ve had though there’s been a failure. 2013’s reinvention of The Mole proved you can take what was a decent format and through contrived editing decisions and too much emphasis on the wrong elements of the gameplay turn it into a turkey. The third season of The Amazing Race Australia was brought in-house this year after the belief that the Network could do better than ActiveTV who made the first two seasons and won an international Emmy for the second while globally reinvigorating the TAR format. They couldn’t.
So the risk in itself was to establish an entirely ‘new’ format that not only could they film a series to broadcast it in Australia (and sell that series for broadcast overseas) but also licence the entire process to other international networks to have them come to Fiji and film their version with all the infrastructure in place.
If either of these two opportunities are successful remains to be seen. It hasn’t succeeded in Australia and that’s not a great start to any sales pitch.
2. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck… you can’t say it’s not a duck.
The comparisons to are plentiful: Drop [quantity] of westerners in [remote place] and have them compete for [prize] by essentially being the last person standing; Have host direct contestants how to play each game and then commentate the games live while reminding constantly of what’s at stake; engender tension within the camp(s) by reminding contestants they are ultimately battling against each other for the chance to win one million dollars; reduce the number of contestants episode by episode through some kind of [team decision]; give some players an advantage over others through [rewards] to stir up further tension; split the contestants into teams; and so on.
You can’t then say “it’s nothing like the S-word” and keep a straight face. Plus where’s the originality in all that?
The key difference is that Survivor go all out creating new and different challenges for each time the teams meet for battle. In TBA pretty much every challenge is focused around the Sky Rig – an scaffold-like arena built over water that can be raised and lowered and altered to suit the challenge. BORING.
3. A love-in does not maketh reality gold.
At the core of all great reality TV those moments when someone explodes at someone else are what make the show memorable. Tension between the contestants must be present and it can’t be confected. Often the best way to build that tension is to separate the contestants and pit them against each other. Make them want to win and ensure that those who lose feel it.
In TBA contestants change teams regularly due to the elimination portion of the show where the team captains schoolyard pick, leaving one behind to be booted. There’s no opportunity to grow an “us versus them” culture when you’re on the orange team one week and blue team the next. Add to that all the contestants sleep at the same place inside a large communal hut (there’s no adventure in that) and spend all the time they’re not competing together. But they don’t want for food or have to fetch water or anything so it’s pretty cruisy. That the contestants really aren’t deprived of anything means there’s little to no consequence to losing other than having to watch the person that won maybe eat a steak while you much on fish.
WHERE’S THE EFFING ADVENTURE BIT WHEN THEY’RE CAMPED ON AN ISLAND LIVING IN REASONABLE LUXURY?!
Then, once we have a winner from the challenge the show changes gears to the all important Grid where the winner has a chance to pick a square and dig until they find a chain with either a rock or a golden key at the end of it (the key gives them a chance to open the treasure chest at the end of the series and possibly win the prize money). Hearing the contestants now cheering for the digger entirely switches the focus of the competition – people are cheering for a competitor to gain an advantage over them which, in the context of a competition, makes very little sense.
To be frank – watching people dig a hole is dull.
4. The host with the most’s personality gone AWOL.
Jason Dundas knows what it takes to make engaging TV. His big break was winning a competition to become a host on MTV, which he parleyed into a job travelling the world on Getaway and then co-hosting VH1’s Big Morning Buzz Live for three years. He’s a busy guy with lots of TV experience.
You’d expect then he’d bring his A-game to the role of host of a new reality show format that had the capacity to raise his profile internationally. Somewhere along the line however Dundas seems to have been told to dial it down too often to the point where it’s almost inconsequential he’s around. His interactions with the cast seem flat (the aforementioned lack of tension is no help) and his calling/commentary of the games is robotic and emotionless. It’s like he’s been knackered – and it’s not worked in his or the show’s favour.
5. Networks are reaping what they’ve sowed.
To be fair to Seven they aren’t the only network limping to the end of the 2014 ratings year. Big Brother isn’t lighting fires for Nine, and pretty much everything Ten have fast-tracked from the US (Scorpion, Madam Secretary, Homeland) is struggling. Even The Blacklist, a former certified winner for Seven, is way down on earlier seasons.
The audience is tired. Tired of shows starting late and running (in some cases VERY) late. Tired of an overload of reality TV strewn across the weekly schedule at the cost of drama, comedy, documentary… everything. In presenting a new reality format in this climate it needed to be solid, engaging & low maintenance in terms of viewing expectation and one out of three just ain’t enough.
The Big Adventure is a problem Seven are now unable to fix. The show’s in the can and so the bind the Network is in is quite the pickle: let the series play out and give away one million dollars with less than 600,000 people watching, or; cancel the series and deal with the PR nightmare of not awarding the winner the million dollar prize. Either way the advertisers (including Mitsubishi and helloworld) aren’t going to get the value they’ll have been promised so there’ll be make-goods aplenty (the companion app has been less than successful too as promised activation ads have been crucially missing from broadcasts).
As for the audience… well, that card has been played. It’s most telling that the show wasn’t name-checked as a part of next year’s upfronts, but Seven have re-worked shows and turned them around before. This might be TBA’s last hope.
The Big Adventure – Sunday 8:35pm (for now), Ch7.