The Resurgence Of Competition Shows And What That Says About Us

We’re currently living in a “golden age” of television. Streaming services like “the big three” — Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix — not only produce their own original content, they actively acquire rights to some of our small-screen favorites. Shows like Friends, which ran from 1994-2004, now have a life and cultural influence long after the decade that birthed it.

The amount of content at our fingertips has even led streaming services to devise algorithms so that programming finds us, rather than us finding it. Yet, inevitably, there are shows that never make it past our streaming queues or wishlists. If content that’s supposed to find us is still able to slip through the cracks, where does that leave traditional broadcast and cable networks? How do they break through the noise created whenever Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu drops a gem that permeates the culture, inspiring meme-able phenomenons like the “Bird Box challenge”?

While competitive game shows have always been a “thing” on TV, there’s something intriguing about the latest iterations sweeping through the airwaves. With shows like Ellen’s Game of Games, The Masked Singer, and The Titan Games making huge splashes this year, we can’t help but question if we’re at a turning point of our so-called golden age of television. What part of our need for entertainment are these shows speaking to, and what does that mean for the future of television? 

Ellen’s Game of Games, which premiered its second season earlier this year, has already been renewed for a third season with no signs of stopping. Hosted by the ever so charismatic Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen’s Game of Games is based on a handful of games that originated on her daytime talkshow. The show plucks contestants from the studio audience and pits them against each other for a chance to win $100,000. The show, which seems simple enough, is now the highest-rated series on NBC, bringing in a whopping 6.3 million viewers on average each episode. 

Its success might be aided by Ellen DeGeneres’s “brand recognition,” and the fact that Ellen’s Game of Games is meant to be watched as it airs. The competitive game series exists in a world where our eyes are glued to our phone screens. It’s not made for passive viewing. The creators of the show have built it around our fragmented attention spans. 

The popular NBC series designed a special app for the show, enabling viewers to play from home. The app called, Game of Games: The Game, was released January 8th, at the start of Season 2. It enables viewers to play from home during the “One Eyed Monster” or the “Make It Rain” segments of each episode. The app creates an immersive experience by giving viewers a chance to win real prizes and the opportunity to “take home” $5,000 without ever having to leave their house!   

Having the app’s “Game of Games Play Along Live” feature enabled during the broadcast creates a need in viewers to be present as the show airs in real time. Once the show is uploaded to streaming services like Hulu, this feature is no longer available, thus making the show’s sense of immediacy very real.  

While Ellen’s Game of Games taps into our need for immersion, The Masked Singer has found its attention-seeking stride though mystery, outlandish spectacles, and passive viewing.

Upon first glance, The Masked Singer is puzzling. Viewers experience immense confusion and — dare I say, horror — but the show’s concept feels foreign even though it’s been Americanized. Originally a Korean game show, NBC’s version of The Masked Singer is hosted by Nick Cannon and features a panel of judges — Nicole Scherzinger, Jenny McCarthy, Robin Thicke, and Ken Jeong. The judges are provided with several clues and are tasked with guessing the secret identities of celebrities who are singing and dancing in crazy costumes. The “masked” celebrities are then pitted against each other in pairs, and the audience gets to vote them off. At the end of each show, a masked singer is unmasked. 

While we’re used to singing competitions like American Idol and The VoiceThe Masked Singer separates itself from the crowd by effectively building mystery. We’re not watching for undiscovered talent, but rather to satiate our curiosity about who is lurking under the mask. Unlike singing competitions of the past, The Masked Singer thrives because it doesn’t require active participation or direct emotional investment from its audience: the judges do the guess work for you. More than anything, we’re tuning in to watch the spectacle — the catchy songs, the intricate masks, and the hefty bodysuits which ultimately lead to a grand reveal. 

The Titan Games is the latest series to join this iteration of competition shows, and it’s hosted by mega-movie star Dwayne Johnson. In the NBC series, athletic competitors face off for a chance to win $100,000 and the prestige of being called a “titan.” It invites viewers to witness intense levels of strength as a form of entertainment. By providing the competitors’ personal stories, The Titan Games
 allows viewers to become invested in these contenders. Viewers, in the audience and at home, quickly develop fan favorites, giving them a reason to tune in week-after-week to see how their “titan-to-be” is doing in the competition.

In particular, NBC’s inclusion of The Titan Games along with America’s Got Talent and Ellen’s Game of Games in its lineup signals how networks keep viewers coming back on a weekly basis. As Daniel Holloway of Variety reports, The Titan Games has become a “central piece of an evolving unscripted strategy at television’s reigning top-rated network.” 

In “the golden age” of television, the return of the word unscripted into our vocabulary can only signal one thing: the death of an era. We’ve been inundated with so much premium content that, perhaps, this idea isn’t so far-fetched. In a culture defined by our ability to “binge watch,” we could potentially be experiencing binge-burnout and be desiring content that invites us to watch passively, on a weekly basis. 

Not only are competitive game shows like Ellen’s Game of Games, The Masked Singer, and The Titan Games making a come back, networks are purposefully leaning into them to keep our attention. Competitive game shows are made for our current cultural climate. They offer immersion, spectacle, and audience connection
without investment. They enable us to watch television without having to keep up with complicated characters or storylines. Above all else, these shows offer must-see TV that invites us to watch — even while we’re scrolling through our phones.

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