At first glance it seems counter intuitive that the resurgence of large scale theatrical entertainment formats has come at a time when “authenticity” is a key ingredient in so much unscripted content.
Viewers are clearly demanding honest, unvarnished voices on TV, yet bombastic stage-bound shows as varied as You’re Back in the Room, Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus and Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris would seem to offer the exact opposite.
Audiences are ready for shows to stop winking in self-referential ways and simply entertain, as brightly and boldly as possible.
Scratch the surface, however, and you find that while such shows and their many variety-themed peers specialise in dazzling spectacle and elaborate construction, the experience they provide is one that is utterly authentic to the viewer at home.
Light entertainment fell out of favour after it became seen as too kitsch for modern audiences to tolerate. It’s a mistake to think that kitsch cannot be honest, however. Indeed, many viewers are drawn to these formats precisely because there’s a shameless show business swagger to them. The age of irony is coming to an end, and when Best Time Ever delivers NBC’s best unscripted figures in years, it’s because audiences are ready for shows to stop winking in self-referential ways and simply entertain, as brightly and boldly as possible.
The result is a new wave of programming, from around the world, that finds fresh pleasure in the thrill of putting on, and watching, a show. That’s “show” in the classic sense – theatrical staging, smiling host, brash performances – rather than the shorthand for “TV programme” it has become.
For the audience at home, it’s a chance to get the night out experience while staying in.
Whether a cultural choice or a financial one, families are more inclined to spend the evening at home and there’s a communal itch that time-shifted viewing and boxset binge watching can’t scratch. This is the true “water cooler” television, those shows that spontaneously generate moments of hilarity or wonder that are all the more powerful for being seen live, or at least at the same time as everyone else.
These are the formats that are immune to changing viewing patterns, and are naturally enhanced by social media and second screen use. Everybody wants to be the first to hashtag that one-off moment that came out of nowhere, to dive into the conversation about a performance or live vote that is still happening.
Big entertainment shows need to run like clockwork, but also be loose enough to allow for unplanned moments to emerge.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that audience tastes have reverted to those of the 1970s and 1980s though. Viewers crave the physical spectacle, but they are far more attuned to emotional artifice. Big entertainment shows need to run like clockwork, but also be loose enough to allow for unplanned moments to emerge, whether live or in the edit. It is, rather appropriately, a tightrope act that commissioners and producers must walk, teetering between glittery construction and improvisational ingenuity. Many will wobble and fall, but for those who strike the right balance, the payoff will be enormous.