reality check

Don’t Blame the Writers Strike for All the Reality TV You’re Going to Watch This Fall

Yes, the broadcast networks are leaning heavily on reality programming. But shows like The Golden Bachelor and Snake Oil aren’t strike creations.
Dont Blame the Writers Strike for All the Reality TV Youre Going to Watch This Fall
By Craig Sjodin/ABC.

Three years ago producers of The Bachelor slipped an unusual casting call into one of its episodes: Were any single seniors looking for love? The announcement made headlines—and even inspired a Late Show With Stephen Colbert spoof—but for the next few seasons, the dating series continued to cycle through handsome 20-something leads. Now, at long last, ABC has announced that it will give one lucky AARP cardholder the opportunity to meet his match on The Golden Bachelor this fall. “It’s official! It’s happening!” Rob Mills, the network executive in charge of reality-TV programming, tweeted on Tuesday. “After all this time we did it.” 

Though Golden Bachelor’s been in the works for almost four years, a source at ABC tells Vanity Fair that the network only just found the perfect opportunity to both air it in a key time slot and lead into it with juggernaut Dancing With the Stars, returning to ABC after a season of streaming exclusively on Disney+. Perhaps not so coincidentally, that perfect opportunity also happens to fall two weeks into the first Hollywood writers strike in 15 years, which has disrupted productions in Los Angeles and New York and threatens to completely upend the broadcast television schedule. 

Golden Bachelor is one of more than a dozen unscripted shows—among them Celebrity Jeopardy! and social-experiment show What Would You Do?—that ABC has lined up this fall, prompting Hollywood trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter to declare that the network has “the most strike-proof” schedule of any of the broadcasters. The only scripted series that even appears on the lineup is Abbott Elementary, which will be airing reruns as long as its writers are picketing, rather than breaking story for the comedy’s eventual third season. 

Though the other broadcast networks have sprinkled a few more scripted projects into their lineups—NBC suits must be cheering the earlier decision to keep making new episodes of Night Court even after production wrapped on the reboot’s first season—they are also leaning heavily into reality fare. Fox, for example, said it has 12 unscripted shows (with names like Snake Oil and We Are Family) ready to air during the 2023–24 television season. And that doesn’t count its live-sports business, which includes college football games and WWE matches. 

It’s not exactly surprising that reality will be the main course on the menu this fall. The last two times that writers headed to the picket lines, the broadcast networks leaned into unscripted programming too. The 1988 strike brought us Cops. The 2007–08 strike, a reboot of American Gladiators. At this point you’ve probably heard the story about how Donald Trump’s flagging competition series, The Apprentice, was given a second life as Celebrity Apprentice during the last strike. He hosted it for seven seasons, until he announced his plans to run for president. Even before the latest strike was officially on, reality producers were quietly discussing the “enormous opportunity,” as one source previously described it to VF, that a scripted-work stoppage would give their business. 

But as TV writer Emily St. James expertly explained in a recent VF column, the link between the 2007–08 strike and a boom in reality TV isn’t as strong as we’ve been led to believe. In actuality, the only new hit reality show to emerge during that 100-day work stoppage was Moment of Truth, a now forgotten Fox adaptation of a Colombian format. The rest of the reality shows that apparently fueled the reality boom—American Idol, Survivor, and Dancing With the Stars—had actually been broadcast mainstays for years. 

This time around, it’s easy to assume that reality is once again booming thanks to the writers strike. But we’re only 17 days into the work stoppage, so it’s still too early to tell whether scripted-production delays will spur a new unscripted golden age. 

Sure, the broadcasters are unveiling fall schedules heavy on competition series, news, and sports. But these lineups weren’t conjured out of thin air. They rely heavily on time-tested formats and ideas that have been in the works for months. The only new unscripted show on ABC’s fall lineup is Golden Bachelor, which in all likelihood would have aired years earlier if  COVID hadn’t delayed its casting process. CBS and NBC, meanwhile, are leaning into mainstays like Survivor and The Voice, respectively, as they count on the return of many of their scripted series. 

And then there’s Fox, which began upping its unscripted output after most of its parent company was sold off to Disney in 2019. For the second year in a row, the broadcaster did not release a fall TV schedule during upfronts week, instead sharing a list of the scripted and unscripted shows that it plans to debut during the upcoming season. “Rather than announce a schedule today that we may not be able to meet, we’re holding back until we see what’s going to be available when,” Fox executive Dan Harrison told reporters during an antics-filled pitch to advertisers on Monday. 

Of the dozen reality shows that the network has teed up for fall, just three are new additions to the schedule, and one of those—the Gordon Ramsay–hosted Kitchen Nightmares—is actually returning after a nearly 10-year hiatus. One of the others, Snake Oil, in which contestants must guess who is pitching a real product and who is just a sleazy salesman, was ordered to series weeks before the strike. 

The 2023–24 television season is also expected to mark the return of The Joe Schmo Show—now on TBS with host Cat Deeley, courtesy of the unscripted veterans at the new Warner Bros. Discovery. Plus, Netflix has already ordered several new seasons of juggernaut Love Is Blind and at least one new season of its competition counterpart, Perfect Match. So yes, there’s a good chance you’ll be watching more reality television than ever this year. Just don’t blame the writers strike for that. 

Reality is as popular as ever, and because it can be made relatively cheaply and quickly, it’s a clear choice for network (and streaming) programmers at a time when cutting costs is the top priority. Last year, Love Is Blind and The Great British Baking Show were among the most-streamed original shows in the US, according to Nielsen. Celebrity Jeopardy! was the sixth-most-watched freshman series in the first month of the fall broadcast TV season. And the biggest telecasts in terms of total viewership were almost all live sports. (The only scripted series to make the top 40 was Yellowstone, with its season four finale and season five premiere on Paramount Network.)

It’s true that every network and streamer will need to find programming to fill the gaps created by the current work stoppage. But now that every major entertainment conglomerate has amassed a library full of classic TV shows and movies, which can be easily pushed to bored streaming viewers, there’s less need for them to order up a bunch of cheap reality programming this time around. If the writers strike lasts long enough—and many industry observers expect that it will—that could change things. But summer is still weeks away, and we’re not in strike-silly season just yet.