Reality competition shows and their appeal in the United States

1 June, 2021

Competition-based reality shows, while based off of the long-used structure of episodic elimination, remain as a staple in American television with consistent demand. This has been the case since Cash and Carry and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts were released in the 1940s. Today, this subgenre has been expanded into a range of themes including cooking, knowledge-based, survival and performance.

With the consistent demand for such programming, many streaming services are moving in on the format - in very creative ways. This is particularly the case for Netflix, which has over the recent years brought out a number of unique and rather specific reality competition shows. The move towards this content could likely be due to the broad spectrum of demographics and audience taste clusters such shows can be targeted towards at once.

This article will cover the current trends of the genre in the United States while also discussing the possible directions this genre could move into in the future.

Familiarity and Consistency

The demand distribution chart below shows the top competition-based reality shows over May this year with the The Voice (US) leading the chart, with 32.3 times more demand than the average show in the United States. With the show’s first season airing in 2011, it is clear that its format, while relatively repetitive, has remained consistently enjoyable to the United States’ audience. In saying this, US demand for The Voice (US) has the potential to grow more so with its 21st season, which will be releasing later this year, featuring Ariana Grande as a coach. This is in replacement of Nick Jonas and it will be interesting to see how such a change will impact demand for the show.

For the months of May and April, three other performance-themed shows sit in the subgenre’s ten most popular. American Idol, released in 2002, America’s Got Talent, released in 2006, and The Masked Singer, released in 2019, all have a relatively consistent and longstanding popularity amongst viewers.

Cooking is another longstanding and consistently popular theme within this reality subgenre. MasterChef (US), with 17.6 times more demand in the United States than the average show, was first released in 2010 and is currently on its tenth season. At 16.9 times more demand, Top Chef (US) also gives indication to the cooking theme’s popularity with United States audiences. The show, running since 2006, is currently on its eighteenth season.


Much the same as May, April also showed older and more established shows of the reality competition genre with an outstanding level of demand in the United States. RuPaul’s Drag Race sat at the top of the list with 31.1 times more demand domestically than the average show. With the show’s finale having aired at the end of April, its demand was at a much higher point than the month after. The show has been airing since 2009 and is currently on its thirteenth season, which, much like the other shows in this subgenre, points towards familiarity being a factor in the consistency of popularity.

Jeopardy!, which runs in a classic game show format, had 28.5 times more demand than the average show over April. The show, having debuted in 1984 and currently in its 37th season, has over 8,000 episodes and still manages to keep a consistent level of demand. The repetitive structure of the show has clearly not hindered its ratings. However, with the use of guest hosts after Alex Trebek’s passing in 2020, it will be interesting to watch the show’s level of demand in their search for a more regular host.


Audience Engagement and Interactivity

The competition subgenre of reality television has a unique point of difference to most other genres - audience interactivity. Popular singing and other performance themed shows in the subgenre, such as America’s Got Talent and The Voice, encourage viewers to stand by their favorite contestants and vote for them after each episode. This engagement gives the viewer a sense of involvement and control over their viewing experience, which can potentially be a growth factor in personal passion for the show.

The interactive engagement element is also present in Jeopardy! and other competition shows with a game show format. While viewers may not be as attached to their favorite contestant as they might have been watching performance themed shows, the question and answer format allows for participation from the audience. It is also all inclusive, potentially involving most members of the family to participate as they have a go at answering the questions, just as the contestants on the show are doing. In addition to this, and quite unlike that of the other shows of this subgenre, the competition begins and ends within an episode at a time - as opposed to episodic elimination of contestants, like in RuPaul’s Drag Race or America’s Got Talent. The viewer can miss as many episodes as they want or begin watching in the middle of the season without any need for catching up on the prior episodes. This makes for easy and casual viewing for most ages.

Future Directions for Reality Competition Shows

With consistency, familiarity, audience engagement and interactivity being likely factors for the subgenre’s current success in the United States market, the continuation of popularity for reality competition shows is quite plausible. However, there are some recent and up and coming innovations that are worth keeping an eye on. One of these that can be considered is Netflix’s growing catalogue of new and unique competition based shows.

The streaming service took a turn away from the subgenre’s obvious familiarity and, while relying on the episodic elimination format, has produced specific and unique programs with themes not usually paired with that of competition reality shows. For instance, Blown Away, which Netflix released in 2019, is a show that covers a group of contestants as they compete in glassblowing sculpture challenges for the chance to win $60,000 in prizes. While the show, currently with two seasons, is sitting at an average level of demand in the United States, it is a good example of the innovation Netflix is integrating into the shows they produce for this genre.

The Circle (US), released on Netflix in January last year, is currently on its second season. It is centered around a group of contestants who move into the same apartment building but only communicating through social media - never meeting face to face. The contestants give ratings to each other, the two highest rated players becoming “influencers”. The show, with its fairly modern concept, has reached 4.5 times more demand than the average show in the United States. This is an impressive achievement, considering it is only in its second season.



Competition shows, as a subgenre of the reality genre, will likely have a consistent amount of demand for the foreseeable future in the United States. This kind of programming is easy to follow and brings fun to a large and diverse target audience, giving each viewer the opportunity to interact and participate from home.

In saying this, while the subgenre will likely hold its consistent demand with United States audiences in the years to come, it will be interesting to see what changes, if any, might come to the landscape of themes. The long-running singing and cooking themed shows in this subgenre will likely continue to remain the most popular and while glassblowing art might be too unique to reach the top ranks of demand across all audiences, it will be intriguing to know what theme might capture United States audiences next.

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