Donald Trump will finally hire someone on tonight's season finale of The Apprentice, after barking "You're fired!" at contestants for the past three months. But with the show's ratings down 24 percent from last season, could Trump himself soon be hearing those same words from NBC?
The Apprentice isn't the only reality show that has lost steam this fall, as television viewers have embraced new scripted dramas and turned away from some reality fare. Fewer people are watching Fear Factor contestants slurp worm juice or hanging on every Bachelor elimination ceremony.
"With quantity - there are more reality shows than ever - comes failure because you're going to have a lot of mediocrity," said Mike Darnell, the head of reality programming for Fox. "There's no question relationship shows are down. People said, 'There are 50 of these on, and I'm tired of them.'"
The reality phenomenon is far from over. Survivor still draws almost 20 million people a week, according to Nielsen Media Research, and yesterday it was renewed for its 11th and 12th seasons on CBS. And American Idol returns next month with more of the singers America loves (to make fun of).
But networks are learning that as reality shows have multiplied, viewers are getting more selective. Just because they liked The Apprentice doesn't mean they'll watch any rich boss show, as Fox learned this fall when The Rebel Billionaire and My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss flopped.
"We're past the point where people will tune in to just anything because it's a reality show," said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president for programming at CBS. "The audience is more discriminating."
That means original ideas and high production values are rewarded, while shows that imitate previous hits and are made on the cheap will fail. Just as there is a wide range of quality when it comes to dramas and comedies, reality shows are also shaking out into the good, the OK and the truly awful.
"If you look at the reality shows that have really broken out, those were fresh ideas," Kahl said. "And the ones that are derivative are falling on hard times very, very quickly."
And, after so many of these shows, viewers are beginning to realize there's not as much at stake as they had once thought. Dating show winners don't immediately head to the altar. Instead, they might go out for a while before their breakup is celebrated in a US Weekly cover story. (And even US Weekly doesn't always put them on the cover anymore.)
A balanced diet
"The blush has worn off the rose here," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. But he adds that just because some reality shows are wearing thin doesn't mean they're all going away.
"What the audience generally wants in their television," he says, "is what they want in their cuisine - a balanced diet. They want some fine French food. And they want some Big Macs."
But even McDonald's has to vary its menu occasionally. Some TV viewers complain that networks find one idea and then do it over and over again, rather than putting on programs with original premises. Dating shows, in particular, have grown stale.
"There's always going to be guys fighting with one another. There's always going to be catfights among the girls," said Keith Kormanik, 32, a Baltimore financial analyst who was on The Bachelorette early this year. "They're kind of getting predictable and repetitive."
Newer shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and other wish-fulfillment programs are doing well, while the cutthroat elimination shows are having trouble. Darnell, at Fox, says it's cyclical. The current sensations are what he calls "invading your family" shows like Trading Spouses and Wife Swap.
"You have to keep finding new angles," Darnell said, "and once that's been overexploited, you have to switch to another type of show."
New vs. stolen ideas
Networks have teams of people dreaming up new premises for reality shows, but they still find it hard to resist stealing each other's ideas. It rarely works: The Rebel Billionaire with Richard Branson, for instance, averaged fewer than 5 million viewers an episode before being canceled after four weeks.
As viewers have turned away from some reality programs, they seem to be turning toward scripted dramatic series. The two biggest hits of the fall are both dramas on ABC - the stranded-on-a-desert-island Lost and the dysfunctional suburban soap Desperate Housewives. ABC was a bit desperate itself, stuck in last place, when it ordered up those shows.
Now that they've both zoomed into TV's top 10, and ABC is the No. 2 network this season, executives are rethinking the place of reality TV in the prime-time schedule - it cannot be used to plug every hole - and the kind of reality shows they offer viewers.
"There is a decline in the relationship genre of alternative series," says Jeff Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment, where The Bachelor is averaging 8.8 million viewers this season, down from 12.5 million last year. "For us, what seems to be working very well are our feel-good reality shows," he said, pointing to Home Edition and Wife Swap.
Network executives say reality shows will always be a part of the mix - along with comedies, dramas and news programs - but they might be dialed back a bit. Fox, for instance, has shown restraint with its most successful reality show, American Idol, airing it only from January to May.
"Believe me, it's very difficult to only do it once a year," Darnell said. "Quite honestly, it makes our fall season miserable. But by waiting, we get people excited, and they don't feel like we're doing too much of it."
Trump's Apprentice will wrap up tonight with a three-hour season finale. The show has performed respectably this year, averaging 15.7 million viewers, but that's still well below last season's average of 20.7 million.
Explanations abound: Perhaps the other billionaire shows made Apprentice seem less original. The contestants this season have been criticized for being less interesting and less bright than last season's.
The Trump factor
Others suggest Trump has lost his allure.
"It was almost like Donald Trump was backwards cool" last year, said Linda Holmes, a Minnesota attorney who summarizes each episode of The Apprentice, Survivor and The Amazing Race for the Web site Television Without Pity.
"Who ever thought Donald Trump would be cool ever again?" she asked. "Once he became forward cool again, once he became less ironic, he became slightly less fascinating."
As for the failure of copycats such as My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, which averaged 4.2 million viewers, Holmes said, "It was rightly rejected by the viewing public. Every once in a while, we get one right."