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All-Stars and the future of reality TV

All-stars seasons are tired. Netflix is rewriting the script for reality TV.

The cast of Netflix's Too Hot to Handle. Source: Netflix.

A recent trend in reality TV of an abundance of “all-star” seasons has emerged — bringing back memorable characters for another chance to win fame, glory and Instagram brand deals. It’s a long list: in February, Channel 10 premiered Australian Survivor: All Stars, followed immediately by MasterChef Australia: Back to Win, which banked (correctly) on the familiar faces of past contestants to ease the transition to brand-new judges. Channel 7 attempted My Kitchen Rules: The Rivals, with “fans” competing against “favourites”; The Voice in 2019 featured returning contestants in the mix; and we’re waiting for the next instalment of Bachelor in Paradise, where problematic faves get a free Fijian vacation, an excuse to day-drink, and a chance at true love.

Australia’s not alone in the all-star game. In the US, Survivor, the original (and in my opinion, still the best) reality TV show, just wrapped its 40th season, Winners at War, bringing back 20 champions to play for the biggest cash prize in reality TV history of $2,000,000. RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars has been a staple since 2012, and The Amazing Race in mid-2019 saw all-stars from Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race gallivant across the globe.

Yet as I flicked through the channels, I couldn’t help but wonder: why? Why this explosion of all-star seasons, and what might it say about the future of reality TV?

Perhaps it’s simply about money. Unscripted TV already costs less to make than scripted shows, and bringing back old heroes and villains means that networks can rely on tried-and-tested talent which viewers will tune into. It’s a strategy which should deliver reliable advertising revenue, all the more important for traditional networks as Australians consume more content from on-demand streaming services. 

This is a plausible theory. MasterChef has easily had the warmest reception in a while, whereas Australian Survivor delivered a 94% increase in 18-to-49-year-old viewers, compared to the same dates in 2019. But it hasn’t worked across the board; MKR had abysmal ratings and is potentially facing cancellation. 

Ultimately, prudent financial decisions don’t always make for good TV, and one could view this all-star glut with some sense of weariness. Some argue that all-star seasons, the same show but just with different configurations of characters, indicate a lack of innovation or a certain tiredness in the reality TV genre. 

But reality TV isn’t dead; instead, it’s having a renaissance on Netflix. The streaming platform has produced hit after shareable hit with The Circle, Love is Blind, Too Hot to Handle, Queer Eye, Nailed It and Next in Fashion, all featuring either brand-new concepts or intriguing storytelling. Netflix benefits from having a business model optimised for online; Joshua Rivera  argues that reality TV is being “reinvented on Netflix for our extremely online world”, with shows, while focused on entertainment, also exploring questions of authenticity, perception and human connection.  Lauren O’Neill and Emma Garland point out that Netflix isn’t under the same obligations to please advertisers and regulators as commercial networks, and thus can proceed full steam ahead with more daring concepts.

So what does commercial reality TV need to kick its all-star habit? For one, their production and social media teams need to be attuned to shifting digital patterns of consumption. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to take over Netflix’s niche, but commercial networks need to prioritise younger adults as an important demographic.

But I think it’s ultimately simpler than trying to find the next magic formula. Reality TV is at its best when it presents real, interpersonal drama, such that it’s not quite reality, but a heightened, curiously constrained and altered version of it. Networks seem to be focused on manufacturing the next viral clip, or introducing the next controversial character for the public to flay alive, that they forget what originally made reality TV so compelling: throw a bunch of complex, fallible characters into a situation where they are challenged, and simply watch how they interact. Make them step out of their comfort zone, and see them react with humour, anger, grace or scandal. It’s what Netflix does so well, and it’s what makes recent successes like Love Island or Married at First Sight such addictive trainwrecks.

My favourite reality TV moment comes from Survivor’s first Final Tribal Council, where eliminated contestant Sue Hawk, after being betrayed by her alliance, gets the chance to make a speech. She compares the two finalists to the “snakes and rats” that infested the jungle they’d been living in, and lays bare the pain and barely-contained rage she felt, all while feeling personally conflicted with having to award $1,000,000 to people who didn’t deserve it. It was an incredible, honest moment. I’d argue that the 52 million people who watched it didn’t need more all-stars to know that.

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