Inspired by the success of the MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules juggernauts, Seven expected its new food reality show, Restaurant Revolution, to go well. But it quickly flopped. Originally scheduled for four nights a week, it’s now down to one. Because of the costs that went into producing it — there are five restaurants currently operating in five capital cities for the show — it’s expected to be one of the most expensive programming flops of the year.

Why did it crash and burn, and does its failure mean the era of large-format multi-night reality TV launches has passed? TV critics Crikey spoke to were divided on whether or not Restaurant Revolution was a good show, but they did say networks would have to be a lot more careful about how they launched new series in the future.

In Restaurant Revolution‘s first week, Seven scheduled four hours of programming over three nights. The economics of scale networks can access by doing this are considerable — their crews are filming anyway, and by running shots longer and having more reactions to events, it’s relatively inexpensive to pad these types of programs. If a strong audience exists, it’s good for the ratings too. But it’s a big commitment to ask of viewers still considering whether or not to commit to a show, says reality TV consultant Emma Ashton.

“Reality TV is still extremely popular,” she said. “But I don’t think you can put anything on and people will watch it.”

Reality cooking shows have been doing well in recent months, with MasterChef helping fuel a financial recovery for Channel Ten and The Hotplate currently doing OK on Channel Nine (it might do better now that its competitor on Seven has been burned). But these shows — and Restaurant Revolution‘s long running time — might have contributed to reality show fatigue.

By giving new shows time to find their footing, Channel Ten is being smart at the moment, Ashton says. “Sure, MasterChef goes over five nights. But the rest of its programming, like The Bachelor, is two nights maximum. That way, you can chop and change. You’re relying less on the one show.”

TV commentator Stephen Molk says the simplest explanation for Restaurant Revolution‘s failure is that viewers are “sick of cooking”.

“We just had MasterChef finish. We saw Restaurant Revolution launch against The Hotplate. With shows like that, they were always going to be competing for the same audience.”

After the expensive flop, he says he expects networks will reconsider how they launch these types of formats. “I don’t think big-format reality is dead by any stretch. But the way it’s delivered will have to be much more thought out.”

Molk offers the “unpopular opinion” Restaurant Revolution was actually a pretty good show. “It’s actually quite engaging. I kind of like the concept.” But, he muses, perhaps the fact that it launched against The Hotplate, with the Channel Nine show securing a larger opening audience, meant viewers quickly wrote it off. He suspects many viewers pay attention to the overnight TV ratings and use these to justify future viewing habits.

“People think, ‘oh it wasn’t good in the ratings, I didn’t like it because of these things’. It helps them justify or rationalise what they choose to watch, particularly with new formats.” When networks move quickly on under-performing programming, like Seven has this time, it helps cement those opinions further — it’s hard to imagine many people choosing to watch Restaurant Revolution now, even though it’s still airing one night a week.

Apart for the debuting I’m A Celebrity … Get me Out Of Here on Ten at the start of the year, reality TV has lost ground among Australian viewers in 2015. And within the Australian audience there is a clear division between different networks: metro viewers seem to prefer Nine and Ten offerings (with the exception of My Kitchen Rules), while regional viewers prefer all Seven’s offerings, with the exception Restaurant Revolution, which has been rejected by viewers in all markets. My Kitchen Rules remains the most watched reality series this year, but it lost ground on last year. The first series of Nine’s The Block floundered until the closing week or two, while Seven’s House Rules was hit by Nine’s Reno Rumble, but couldn’t regain momentum when Reno Rumble finished before it. Seven had hopes for it being a breakout hit this year.

Ahead lie two tests — Seven’s will be The X Factor, which underperformed last season, and Ten’s will be The Biggest Loser, which has been pushed back from its start of year timing and has a new host and a revamp. Before Restaurant Revolution, The Biggest Loser had been the worst-performing of the big format reality programs. The Bachelor on Ten is expected to improve this year, having planted itself in the social media universe and among females 16 to 39, and The Bachelorette is aimed at the same demographic.

The national split in the audience is adding to the growing fatigue among viewers (especially in the metros) for these big-format shows. They offer the networks and advertisers the last programming ideas for big audience generation, as they are not pirated much. They also generate a lot of social media engagement and offer sponsorship and product placement opportunities for advertisers and media buying clients. And despite their multimillion-dollar budgets, they are easy (and very cost effective) to extend should they perform well.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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