Last Wednesday, the Challenge had its lowest viewed episode in franchise history as Episode 3 of Spies, Lies & Allies totaled only 506,000 viewers. Thus far, the season has averaged 596k viewers per episode (small sample size), which is a stark contrast to the 891k average viewers from Double Agents just four months ago. Meaning, we are currently seeing a 33% drop in viewership from one season to the next. For the show to drop this low in only Episode 3 does not bode well for the reason of the season, and it could lead to some term ramifications for the show, positively and negatively. Low viewership could lead to MTV putting in a more significant effort in terms of casting and promotion, or it could lead to them funding the show less and, if things get worse, maybe even canceling like they did Real World or Road Rules. The latter is more unlikely to happen, in my opinion, because even with viewership being much lower than usual, The Challenge is still doing well in the key demographics (SLA Premiere was the #1 show on Cable).
I want to break down why viewership is lower than usual, ways MTV could assuage the issue, and the historical precedence for viewership drops. Before I do that, here is a look at the ratings from the last three episodes and the ten lowest viewed episodes in show history, to which you will notice 6 out of 10 are in the last four seasons. Also, a shout-out must go out to the lovely PinkRose from Vevmo.com for keeping up ratings threads and info for all seasons, as well as their work collecting spoilers and Challenge tea.
EPISODE 1 (1st in the Key Demo Ratings, 660,000 Viewers)
EPISODE 2 (5th in the Key Demo Ratings, 624,000 Viewers)
EPISODE 3 (5th in the Key Demo Ratings, 506,000 Viewers)
Top 10 Lowest Episodes
First Off, Let’s Acknowledge, Much Less People Have Cable Now Than Before
Cable and satellite TV use has dropped dramatically in the U.S. since 2015
The share of Americans who say they watch television via cable or satellite has plunged from 76% in 2015 to 56% this…
It is a simple fact. According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of TV viewers had Cable, and now that number is down to 56%, meaning they lost 20+ million viewers. With so many streaming services available for entertainment, many homes have cut the cord on cable, instead choosing to cherry-pick what they want from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, and so on. It has impacted the way many consume their content, as the binge-watch method has become popularized where so many people (including myself) will wait for a show to end to rip through the entire season in a weekend. A mix of fewer total viewers and less of a reason to watch live inherently makes you assume the ratings will dip.
The Challenge has actually maintained a decently stable viewership level throughout the years as sports like Baseball, Basketball, and Wrestling have daily conversations about dwindling ratings and viewers. WWE’s Monday Night Raw had 5 Million Viewers an Episode back in 2010, and nowadays, they are happy when they break 2 Million. Even though the Challenge has hit points of 2+ Million Viewers for episodes, Fresh Meat 2, which was in 2010, had an episode with only 930k viewers. I know that was the low-point for that era, but Double Agents had multiple episodes higher than that, and to eclipse something in viewership from 11 years ago is crazy. This is all while The Challenge is on a dying network (get your shit together, MTV).
Has This Happened Before?
The simple answer is yes. Exes 1 aired during Spring of 2012 and averaged a whopping 1.937 million viewers per episode. Battle of the Seasons aired in the Fall of 2012 and plummeted to 1.090 million viewers an episode, which is a 44% drop-off and an average 847k less viewers per episode. Think about that, there was a bigger drop-off between Exes 1 and BOTS than people are currently watching Spies, Lies & Allies (by over 200k as well). Which I do find it pertinent to note that Rivals & Exes 1 were back to back seasons that absolutely killed it in the ratings and viewership, far surpassing the Cutthroat and Fresh Meat 2. Still, an 847k drop-off is steep.
Why Was There Such a Steep Drop-Off and How Does it Relate to Spies, Lies, & Allies? (The Rookie Dilemma)
Rivals and Exes were groundbreaking formats that took the franchise’s 20+ season history and put together some of the show’s most iconic feuds and former relationships as partners. It caught the attention of both new and long-time viewers. To follow it up with a Battle of the Seasons cast that was primarily rookies and inexperienced players without some flagship characters to put on posters made for a tough sell. It did not help either there was a 6-month gap, whereas if Exes 1 had come out in the Fall, and they debuted Battle of the Seasons in the early Spring right-after, more fans would have been willing to give it a shot out of goodwill, rather than taking a quick look at the cast just saying “Nah fuck that, I’m gonna watch New Girl instead.”
We are seeing that same problem with Spies, Lies & Allies currently where MTV threw us a massive 34 person cast (36 with Ed and Amber), and 18 of them were rookies from different shows and countries. Fans look at the cast and see a show they don’t recognize, and they don’t necessarily give it a fair shot. It is somewhat unfair because this season has been solid from a quality standpoint, and the house feels similar to old-school Challenge vibes. Battle of the Bloodlines (a heavy rookie season) had a similar viewership problem with its first two episodes. It then turned it around as the season gained steam (the previous season, Exes 2 was in an awful 11 PM time slot, which made the average drop-off not as drastic). The same goes for War of the Worlds, another half-rookie game, started slow, and then the quality shined through. Hopefully, the same could happen for Spies, Lies & Allies.
Although, a bigger problem may be the veterans
You Can’t Build a House Without a Foundation (Vet Issue)
When MTV made War of the Worlds 1, they also gave us 18 rookies, yet, they were smart to load up the cast with name-brand veterans, on top of some significant returns with Wes and Nany. They paired these rookies with vets that you cared about, and it reflected in the ratings as viewership went up a ton from Final Reckoning, even eclipsing a million viewers in Episode 8 of the season (after players such as Bananas, CT, Leroy, and Ashley had been eliminated!).
You look at the veteran cast for Spies, Lies & Allies, and I can tell you this, fans are tired of this bunch. Every single player appeared on Double Agents (a season that would never end) except for Amanda. 13 out of the original 16 Vets were on Total Madness as well. So not only are fans outside their comfort zone, they are also disgusted by the sheer sight of certain veterans they are tired of seeing (Josh, Aneesa, Fessy, etc.). It is like your mom packing you the same mediocre lunch sandwich every day, but you deal with it because you get a bag of Famous Amos cookies, then she went on a health kick, and now your mediocre sandwich is paired with dried apricots. Which are not bad; the problem is you have the palette of a 7-year-old, and you want a fucking cookie.
Fans would be far more invested in these rookies if paired with a Brad, Laurel, or KellyAnne. If you cannot pull that off, rip the crust off the sandwich and trim the fat. Give us a 20 person cast with the vets being CT/Nelson/Cory/Kyle/Devin and Ashley/Amanda/Big T/Tori/Kaycee, and then whatever 10 rookies you want. Quality vs. Quantity.
Other Important Factors at Work
The Pandemic Really Helped Challenge Viewership
War of the Worlds 2 (LEFT) vs Total Madness (RIGHT)
Total Madness debuted on April 1st, 2020, during the pandemic’s peak. The premiere debuted to over a million viewers, and the season averaged 941k viewers. With no actual sports on television, many sites dipped their toes into Challenge coverage because there wasn’t much else, leading to loads of fans rediscovering the show or simply picking it up for the first time. For comparison, the average viewership of War of the Worlds 2 was 731k. While War of the Worlds 2 is not a good season, neither is Total Madness. If anything, at least War of the Worlds 2 had people angry and divisive, whereas Total Madness was a mundane level of bad.
At the very least, Total Madness and the pandemic as a whole got many fans back into the Challenge. Which is crazy to type; it’s just true. Looking back, the viewership trajectory we are currently on is probably where we would’ve been faster had it not been for the pandemic.
Summer-TV Watchers Abandon Cable Shows
The cable-TV industry has the summertime blues. Ratings are down by double digits at many of the top cable channels as…
Across the board, TV ratings/viewership generally goes down in the Summer. To drop a show in Early August on the Ridiculousness Network and expect people who had to wait an extra year to live their Hot Girl Summer life to tune in at 8 PM EST on a Wednesday is a bit of big ask. When digging through the numbers, seasons that have underperformed viewership-wise (WOTW 2, Final Reckoning, Dirty 30), they all had Summer premieres. Then again, most of those seasons are not what I would call great Challenge seasons either.
Big Brother is Actually Solid This Season, Survivor is coming back soon too
Part of the appeal of casting Big Brother players is that you hope their diehard fans carry over to the Challenge and attract new viewers. The Challenge coming out in the Summer when Big Brother is hitting a critical point in the game where every competition and vote will essentially shift the game’s final outcome is not great timing. Add in that Survivor fans are hungry for their show to come back after not getting a Fall or Spring Season in 20–21. No Survivor in the Spring benefited Double Agents. It is funny because these are all Viacom properties.
Don’t think this season is a total failure because the views are at a low. Give it a shot, and if you are already watching, open your mind a little more. It is far too soon to anoint this a good season, but Episodes 1 and 2 of Spies, Lies & Allies brought genuine joy and excitement that I haven’t felt the last few seasons. In terms of casting, MTV found rookies who fit the mold of Classic challengers in terms of charisma and personality. However, I worry MTV may place the blame of low viewership numbers solely on them. My fear with MTV is that they will tear down any progress S37 has towards creating more storylines and characters for the future as an immediate reaction towards the lower ratings.
At the same time, if lower ratings force MTV’s hand to shelling out more money to bring in big OG names to bump the ratings, I’m not going to complain. Sometimes the Challenge producers need a kick in the ass to liven things up, maybe these viewership numbers will make them realize that some of the people they have been relying on to be staples, should maybe be kept at home.