LONDON — The Brits’ love-hate relationship with reality TV will be tested to destruction in the coming weeks — and the loser looks likely to be the nation’s biggest commercial terrestrial player, embattled ITV.
At least, rival web Channel 4 hopes so.
On May 27, in a British summer tradition now as much a part of the season as Test Match Cricket and rain-soaked vacations, C4 rolled out the sixth season of Endemol’s reality blockbuster, “Big Brother,” its most commercially valuable property by a long margin.
It is banking on “Big Brother” knocking out ITV1’s struggling reality skein, “Celebrity Love Island.”
The show, in which a bunch of D-list celebs including former Atomic Kitten pop star Liz McClarnon and ex-“EastEnders” thesp Michael Greco, attempt to drum up some action in Fiji, was launched as a pre-emptive strike against “Big Brother.”
But it has turned into a big headache for the web.
Critics loathe it — and auds are tuning out.
Aimed at the same 16-34 demo, the two shows could not be more different.
At its best “Big Brother” (extended to 11 instead of 10 weeks this year) delivers bona fide drama as the housemates get to know one another.
After a disappointing fourth series, a toxic brew of sex and violence revived the fifth “Big Brother” last summer.
In an attempt to crank up the tension, this year the “Big Brother” house has see-through walls.
“The house will feel more claustrophobic,” says exec producer Sharon Powers. “From the dining table area you can see into the bedroom, and from the garden you can see the living room. This time, more than any previous year, there is nowhere to hide.”
And neither, by the looks of it, is there any escape for ITV.
The web was forced to pull “Celebrity Wrestling” from the Saturday night schedules two weeks ago when ratings nose-dived to just 2.3 million viewers and a 14% audience share.
But that’s better than the May 21 edition of “Celebrity Love Island,” which pulled just 2 million viewers for a 10% aud share — its lowest yet and way down on the 5.3 million it bowed with.
“Celebrity Love Island” has another three weeks to go. Can it retrieve the situation for ITV?
As many British commentators have noted, the chief problem with the massively hyped show is its innate dullness.
“There is no challenge or resolution, which is so vital to this format,” opined columnist Emily Bell writing in British daily, the Guardian. “The mantra of successful reality is narrative, narrative, narrative and so far there is very little.”
“Contrary to the overall perception in the press,” an ITV spokeswoman insists, ” ‘Celebrity Love Island’ is doing fine with the target audience of 16- to 34-year-olds although it’s likely ‘Big Brother’ will have an impact on that segment of our audience.”
As one former C4 exec says, “Both networks are chasing the same 16-34 demographic with primetime reality shows and it looks like there can only be one winner.”
Ultimately, this war of competing reality formats boils down to much-needed revenues, but in such a competitive market the stakes have never been higher.
So high, in fact, that last week C4’s normally reserved chairman, restaurant entrepreneur Luke Johnson, took a pop at ITV, describing the web as “profoundly timid.”
“They are losing audiences hand over fist,” he says. “If they were innovative and breaking new ground they would be doing better critically and financially.
“They are going for the tried and tested and obvious, and that’s why viewers have decided they are boring. Playing it safe is mostly a mug’s game.”
Whoever said it’s only reality TV?