So You Think You Can Dance Australia, which follows familiar reality rhythms, failed to match its rivals' ratings.
Television programming may be a dark art, but not even the canniest programmer can make three go into two. On Sunday night Network Ten relaunched its reality dance franchise So You Think You Can Dance Australia, pitting it at 6.30pm against a pair of reality hits already in their stride: Seven's cooking smash My Kitchen Rules and Nine's renovation success The Block: Fans v Faves. The result? A wipeout worthy of Ten's Winter Olympics coverage.
So You Think You Can Dance Australia's debut drew a tiny metropolitan audience of 466,000, humbled by My Kitchen Rules' 1.64 million and The Block's 1.27 million viewers.
Television watchers were given a choice, and they made a clear one. Just 18 months ago Ten's disastrous Everybody Dance Now, the reality series that replaced So You Think You Can Dance Australia, debuted with almost 600,000 viewers, yet eight days later it was cancelled after four episodes.
On the basis of the first two episodes, the new So You Think You Can Dance Australia doesn't deserve the same fate. The effort and expense that went into resurrecting the series for a fourth season was apparent. The judging panel had a new fulcrum, former pop star, dancer and American Idol judge Paula Abdul, who supplied some cosmic empathy and tears, and the editing was sharp.
The show has a commitment to diversity that informed the adroitly shaped storylines: two of the competitors were a lesbian couple, another was a young indigenous man from rural South Australia; there was the offspring of a big Greek clan, an 18-year-old from a farm, and even a hip-hop B-boy doing a double science degree in between defying gravity. Collectively they looked like Australia.
Some of the fundamentals were slippery, including the lack of a simple explanation for what each episode would accomplish in terms of how many of the initial 100 contestants were being eliminated and what the format was; it was a surprise when some on the cusp of departing were asked to dance solo to save themselves. The Project's Carrie Bickmore, the new host, is doing some exemplary excitable whispering, but more information would help.
The underlying problem may simply be that we're all too familiar with reality television. "The feeling I get from dancing is second to none," enthused one contestant, and if you inserted "cooking" into that claim you'd have a clip from MasterChef. We know, for example, that if someone boasts a little too hard, as in Mia and her patented "the Mia style" of dance, that they're being set up for the fall. The rhythms of reality TV are ones we can all move to now.
As reality franchises have become the crucial foundation for each commercial network's fortunes, the formats have grown constrictive. The big new hit from 2013 was Seven's House Rules, a show that was essentially a canny spin on The Block. In 2012 The Voice reworked the reality singing show format. When your big point of difference is revolving red chairs, everything else quickly grows recognisable.
Reality television is dominated by cooking, renovation and performance (don't mention The Bachelor, just don't), and the new alternative is intriguing. Last month in the Netherlands, Dutch media tycoon and serial show creator John de Mol launched Utopia, the latest idea from a reality pioneer whose previous successes include Big Brother and The Voice.
The show, whose American remake rights have already been snapped up by Fox, has been classified as social experiment reality television. It isolates 15 people in a rural compound stocked with basic amenities for a year, then with about 100 cameras watching, leaves them to get on with their lives. There are monthly elimination votes and regular replacements, but the idea is to see what develops instead of steering daily activities.
It could be nothing more than a grimy Big Brother, or a worrying update of Lord of the Flies, but it's clear that de Mol thinks that the genre has to find new facets. As the muted reaction to So You Think You Can Dance Australia demonstrates, looking back won't take you that far forward.