Reality TV may have gotten its groove back, and it’s all thanks to a bunch of B-list celebrities attempting to carry a tune underneath elaborate costumes. The success of Fox’s “The Masked Singer” has injected new life in the unscripted world, which has struggled in recent years to generate the kind of buzz and excitement that defined the genre in the early 2000s.
Now, producers are dusting off edgy formats that might have been considered too outlandish just a year ago, and executives say they’re feeling emboldened to take a chance on unusual concepts. Much like the early golden age of reality, many of those formats hail from overseas — this time especially from territories like South Korea, where the idea behind “Masked Singer” originated.
“There has definitely been a change in pitches and types of pitches,” said Fox alternative entertainment president Rob Wade. “People are definitely thinking in a different way already. They’re like, ‘Hey, I brought this in five years ago, and I was told I was a crazy person, but what about now?’”
“The Masked Singer” features celebs like Ricki Lake, Margaret Cho and Tommy Chong crooning their favorite songs while completely hidden in costumes that, for instance, turn them into a raven, a poodle or a pineapple. It’s silly, it’s visually entertaining and, at the show’s core, there’s a compelling mystery — who’s behind the mask?
The series has clearly resonated with audiences. Backed by a hefty Fox marketing campaign, “Masked Singer” opened in January to the highest ratings of any unscripted series in more than seven years. It’s also TV’s top-rated reality show in four years and the No. 3 broadcast network entertainment series of the season (behind “This Is Us” and “The Big Bang Theory”). And it’s also been renewed for a second season.
“Nearly all of the senior heads of networks, cable and streamers have phoned and said, ‘Thank God,’” Wade said. “Because a hit gives you carte blanche, whether you’re at my network or another network, to kind of try different things. It’s difficult to take risks as a network if nothing is working.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that, as Fox reports it, “The Masked Singer” is also the “first of 357 unscripted series over the past 15 years to rank as the season’s No. 1 unscripted show in its first cycle.” The last program to do that was Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” in 2003 — among the most memorable series to come out of reality TV’s Outlandish Age.
Reality guru Mike Darnell, who ran Fox’s alternative department at the time, was one of the first people to call Wade the morning after the premiere of “The Masked Singer” to congratulate him on the numbers. Darnell, now the president of Warner Bros. unscripted and alternative TV, agreed that the show harked back to Fox’s reality heyday — when the network took chances on crazy concepts like “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé,” “The Swan,” “The Littlest Groom,” “Who’s Your Daddy” and “Man vs. Beast.”
“It feels very much like the roots of the company,” Darnell said. “I’m very proud of them over there; I think they did a nice job with it. It makes unscripted feel fun, and it also opens up a door to say, ‘Hey, the genre still has a lot of life in it — it just needs the right thing at the right time.’”
It certainly couldn’t have come at a better moment. While peak TV has fueled a scripted renaissance, reality TV hasn’t been nearly as prolific. That’s been particularly true on broadcast, with veteran shows like “Survivor,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Voice” taking up most of the primetime shelf space.
“There was a long period of time where not a lot of new hits were broken on broadcast,” ITV Studios America CEO David George said. “We live in an era where everything has to be a safe bet. Network executives take fewer chances. When something like ‘The Masked Singer’ comes along, it should signal to the marketplace that outside of the box is something good. We’re hopeful the pendulum is swinging back toward unscripted a little bit.”
“The Masked Singer” isn’t the only series aiming to recapture the go-go early 2000s and its “anything goes” reality mantra. Several of the signature shows of that era are making a comeback thanks to reboot mania — including many that originated at Fox under Darnell. USA Network recently revived “Temptation Island,” while Fox plans to bring back “Paradise Hotel.”
But just like they did a decade ago, networks and producers are also looking abroad to find the next big, loud hit. Coming this summer, CBS has ITV Studios’ “Love Island,” based on the smash U.K. sexy interactive dating competition. Among the South Korean titles being pitched to networks is “I Can See Your Voice,” described as a “mystery music game show” in which a recording star must determine which contestants can carry a tune and which are tone-deaf. Another competition show in the market, “Small Fortune,” hails from the U.K. and puts contestants in a miniature world.
“Masked Singer” executive producer Craig Plestis said the key to success is to be fearless.
“This opened a door,” Plestis said. “Don’t be derivative: Be fresh, be different. People are tired of seeing the same old stuff. I know from my past when I took chances I always won. And when I played it safe it was a two-base hit. It’s good to take a swing. And this was a huge swing.”