A Weird Thought On Reality Show Game Structure

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So I’m currently planning on getting a tattoo, and as such have been mainlining Ink Master – a reality show where ten tattoo artists show up and permanently mangle people’s flesh as part of a contest.  I find it interesting, as I do most reality shows based on a profession, because I haven’t thought about all the challenges involved in tattooing before and now I get to see people fucking them up on a weekly basis.
But it occurs to me that there are two ways of deciding who gets kicked off this week on a reality show, and both of them suck.
You can do the “who did the worst job this week?” vote-off, and that’s unpredictable but frequently unsatisfying.  MasterChef does this, and quite often it takes a chef who’s been kicking ass all the way and tripped.  Whereas a less-adventurous cook can keep chugging along, because maybe he didn’t win but he didn’t fuck up badly enough.  So you often wind up with some more-talented people getting kicked off prematurely, leaving the dregs behind.
Sometimes the dregs make the top four.  And that’s inevitably enraging.
But if you do the “Who’s done the worst job over the course of the contest?” then the endings become pretty predictable.  After the first five shows or so, where everyone’s still learning the craft, most contest shows boil down to two or three frontrunners.  As you kick out the dregs, the frontrunners continue to shine, and the top four are, well, the folks you thought would make it in.
I’m not sure if there is a way to have judges vote off people that doesn’t lead to either talented people getting kicked off for dumb mistakes, or talented people being predictably good at their jobs.  The nature of reality shows is that upsets occur – in that, they’re like sports, weirdly addictive because anything really could happen – so it’s not a guarantee either way, but I am curious if there’d be a way to structure such things to strike a balance between the two.
I can’t think of one.  But y’all are bright.


  1. Chris Ogilvie
    Sep 26, 2014

    There’s a third elimination method, though it’s one not often used. I’ve only ever seen it on Canada’s Worst Driver, which is a show that gathers a number of bad drivers, teaches them to drive better, then puts them through challenges. At the end of each episode, the best driver is sent home. Ostensibly, this is because they’ve been “rehabilitated” and the other drivers require further instruction. It also has the benefit of keeping the “interesting” drivers on the show.
    Sometimes, no one will go home in a given episode, if not enough improvement has been made.
    It works quite effectively, and there’s a level of genuine human empathy suffused throughout the show, as the worst drivers almost always have deeper issues that cause them to drive badly… and the show folks actually try to help them work through them. One of the judges, for example, is a clinical psychologist.
    Interestingly, this elimination mechanic is entirely absent from the U.S. version of the show (America’s Worst Driver). In that show, the worst driver is eliminated each week. So the whole thing turns into a competition, with the best being selected at the end, rather than an exercise in “rehabilitation.”
    It doesn’t work. No surprise that the Canadian show is up to nine seasons (and counting), while the U.S. show only had one season.
    If you’re interested, CWD clips are readily available on YouTube.

  2. Leah Miller
    Sep 26, 2014

    I’m a game designer, so of course I can come up with not just one, but several.
    These would all require some creativity in editing and episode scheduling, but they’re all possible.
    1. Comeback! Periodic “comeback” challenges, where all previously eliminated contestants get a shot to come back in. Several versions of this have been tried, but I think it’d be possible to do it in a more structured format. My first idea: parallel webseries featuring competitions between eliminated people, vying on a cumulative point system to get back in (people would return 1-3 times per season, while the main competition is still worst this week=eliminated). This also has the benefit of allowing early losers to gain fans.
    2. Showdown! Replace “Immunity Next week” with some kind of a token system, where the token can be “spent” to trigger a sudden-death showdown with the other lowest-ranked person. This means that someone who has been doing really well has to both screw up AND lose their showdown. In fashion I especially like this, because it could be the “salvage it showdown,” where they have 2-3 hours to edit and fix the thing. There are a bunch of different ways tokens could be designed, and ways to encourage people to save them or spend them all at once.
    3. Extra Lives: (Immunity Variation B) winning grants you an extra life, but any time you are in the bottom half during judging, you lose a life. If you’d be eliminated, you lose more lives (possibly all remaining ones).
    4. External salvation mechanic: Someone (Tim Gunn, the audience, a secret mystery consultant, the other contestants) gets one save per season. This has been tried, it’s viable but it can feel cheap.
    These all have their problems: Comeback requires a carefully balanced episode structure, and ideally some kind of parallel production so the comeback doesn’t seem like it’s out of nowhere. Showdown is an editing/pacing challenge – if it’s at the end of the show, it eats into time and can be a little predictable. Extra lives might be harder for people to understand. 1 & 4 have both been tried many times, but mostly in the kind of competition that isn’t talent-based (a secret survivor tribe, etc).
    All of these are designed to give second chances to the highly competent who are experimental or unlucky, without guaranteeing that the favorites coast unchallenged and unworried.

  3. Auroch
    Sep 26, 2014

    As also-a-game-designer, I actually managed to not create a custom thing. Instead, I’d suggest an old one: double-elimination tournaments.
    This would be a little different in the group contest format than the head-to-head structure it’s set up for, but you could still get a ‘everyone gets one chance to trip’ setup. To avoid making everything stretch out twice as long, you could have the two worst both get knocked every episode (up until the final 3-4, where you dial it down to one to increase the tension). It would even work well with the hype machine: someone who’s used up their second chance is On Thin Ice and gets to be a comeback kid even if they always looked like a frontrunner.
    And yeah, sometimes someone excellent will trip twice and get knocked out. But hey, at that point maybe they deserve it.

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