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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Why The Masked Singer’s Rudy Giuliani Reveal Failed

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

On Wednesday night, the most unpredictably predictable thing happened: The Masked Singer revealed Rudy Giuliani to be its latest disguised contestant. Very few people at home were shocked—Deadline reported on the former New York City mayor’s appearance on the show back in February—but as Giuliani reprised his rendition of George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone,” judge Ken Jeong walked off stage in apparent disgust. The fact that the show’s producers brought on former president Donald Trump’s adviser in an attempt to draw attention isn’t that much of a surprise. But the fact that the gambit didn’t work should be.

Television shows, be they news programs or reality series, book controversial, lightning-rod guests to get ratings. It is, to use a cliché, one of the oldest tricks in the book. In fact, it’s a trick The Masked Singer has pulled before; the show had former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a contestant in early 2020. That performance, however, got drowned out by news that Tom Hanks had Covid-19. Giuliani’s appearance, meanwhile, was overshadowed by (among other things) the fact that he has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection on the US Capitol for perpetuating bogus claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

As the show aired Wednesday night, Twitter lit up with commentary—much of it negative—about Giuliani’s appearance. But all that chatter, typically gold for a TV show trying to pull in viewers, didn’t translate to huge ratings. The show brought in only 3.6 million viewers, the lowest of the season so far. Those who did tune in, it seems, did so only to verify that the dystopian moment they’d read about really happened—and that Jeong walked off, which he did, proclaiming “I’m done.”

Perhaps so are viewers. As much as they love to watch train wrecks play out on their TV screens, the failure of Giuliani’s appearance on The Masked Singer to snatch ratings demonstrates that stunt casting of this sort has limits. Having former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Dancing with the Stars tiptoed up to the line; Giuliani appears to have crossed it. Sometimes lightning rods just get you blown up.

The Masked Singer’s ratings dip comes at a precarious time for network television. Yes, the industry has been facing stiff competition from streaming services for years, but recently broadcast TV has fallen way behind. Just this week Nielsen reported streaming content occupied some 30 percent of viewers’ TV usage in March, while broadcast’s share fell below 25 percent. Cable TV nabbed the bulk of viewing time—37 percent—but that was largely driven by news outlets covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And if we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that traditional TV can’t just jump into the streaming game and expect to snag viewers, even if that streaming service is offering news. (RIP, CNN+.)

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So, what’s a television network to do? It’s hard to keep up when hitmakers like Shonda Rhimes leave networks for streamers like Netflix, but even Netflix has had a bad week when it comes to keeping people tuned in. And really, it’s the keeping people around that seems to be the problem. For years streaming services like Netflix attracted new users by offering flashy shows that they rarely kept around for longer than a few seasons. They’ve managed to hold on to most viewers, but even that method can’t last forever. With so many viewing options, booking button-pushing guests like Giuliani or adding flashy shows that lose their luster after one season won’t keep people coming back for more. Viewers crave consistency. Turning Rudy Giuliani into a jack-in-the-box isn’t it.

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