3:30 PM EST, January 30, 2014
The future of reality TV may have already gotten a test run in Japan.
Last year, Asahi TV Corp. and content-fingerprinting specialist Vobile Japan partnered on an unusual experiment for an unscripted primetime series that blurred the line between contestant and audience. When the "Survivor"-themed format featured an on-air personality harpooning fish, viewers were invited to use their smartphones to do some spearing of their own, competing for points by snapping photos of the catch onscreen.
The point was to hook not just fish but also viewers in the treacherous waters of live TV, where ad-skipping DVRs and a sea of competitors make achieving decent ratings increasingly challenging.
It's an odd example, but one that demonstrates the direction TV networks are going to have to go with reality TV to preserve the prime value of that first window, where most revenue is made. This gamification of reality TV is a trend no one has seen coming, yet it feels inevitable: leveraging second screens to bring back an urgency to watching that first screen.
Lord knows reality competition series can use the help. Once providing TV's highest-rated programs, this subgenre has seen pillars of primetime like "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" atrophy over long runs, and few new offerings join them. For every rare success of something like "The Voice," there have been countless failures.
This category doesn't need to be just reinvigorated; it needs to be reinvented.
Unscripted TV is far more fertile ground for digital-driven interactivity than are dramas and comedies, which is why many of the genre's shows are already equipped with extensive social-media adjuncts. But there's so much further to go beyond hashtags and voting to give viewers more of an investment to tune in when a show airs.
It's a strategy that's not easy to describe without using the word "interactive," which is practically a pejorative, given how long and futilely some on the margins of the industry have toiled to make TV programming more of a participatory experience. It's easy to dismiss two decades of aborted efforts as evidence that TV is fundamentally passive and leave it at that, but there's a case to be made that technology was never mature enough to generate the seamless environment required -- and it may still not be ready, but you never know until you try.
That's why NBC should be commended for trying something as innovative and ambitious as the gameshow "Million Second Quiz," which attempted last year to incorporate real-time trivia via mobile apps -- but didn't receive much audience love. It's easy to label "Quiz" a failure and conclude that viewers aren't interested in interactivity, but that may confuse execution with premise.
It's heartening to see ABC wasn't discouraged by "Quiz." The network is launching Israeli format "Rising Star" later this year, complete with a very robust real-time voting component that reduces reliance on the genre's most cliched element, celebrity judges. U.S. time zones make this kind of live integration a tricky proposition, but ABC's risk-taking is admirable.
That said, real-time voting is really a baby step toward true interactive TV. It's hard to visualize the possibilities, but imagine a world where viewers could Skype their way directly into a telecast and compete along with contestants on site. It's hard to conceptualize any other way for non-sports entertainment to deliver the kind of engagement advertisers crave.
If the broadcasters don't try to innovate here, other platforms certainly will. Just think how central to the living room consoles like Xbox already are. Microsoft's entertainment studio would be nuts not to try a series that isn't steeped in gaming, given what an organic outgrowth that is from Xbox's core competency.
Competition reality programming may seem too far gone to revive. But if history is any indication, it's just when you count out a TV genre that it comes roaring back.