Is Anyone Watching Penn & Teller: Fool Us?

116 episodes later, let's unpack the timeline of the long-running magic reality competition show. How did the show go from 4 million viewers to 0.5 million viewers per episode?

Is Anyone Watching Penn & Teller: Fool Us?

The answer is: yes, but not very many people.

So I guess my question is, who’s paying for the show, then?

Let’s start at the beginning.

4 Million Watched the Pilot

Fool Us began life in 2011 as a single straight-to-air pilot on ITV in the UK. The concept was simple, fool Penn & Teller and win a trophy and a trip to Vegas. Penn & Teller are pretty famous and well-respected in the UK. They’d been on the Jonathon Ross show several times — Ross is a big magic fanboy. It all looked positive.

Penn and Teller had been quite outspoken about how much they disliked reality shows, explicitly judging/competition shows. Some found it odd that they’d spent their career unwinding the idea that being fooling was the crux of good magic only to judge magic on foolingness alone.

When rehearsing the pilot, they needed to decide if the host would be on the side of the magicians or the side of Penn and Teller. They had to figure out how to give up the fact they knew how a trick worked without revealing the secret or upsetting the audience by not giving anything away.

Jonathan Ross hosted the pilot that pulled enough viewers to get commissioned as an eight-part series.

3 Million Watched Series One

Production recorded all eight episodes over ten days.

You’ll notice Penn, Teller and Host always wear the same outfit throughout the season. They do this because they don’t know which magicians will be in each episode until they reach the edit—choosing then to chop things up so that there’s an even distribution of fooler, big tricks, and impressive sleight of hand in each episode.

The producers announced in 2012 that ITV had cancelled the show, despite averaging millions more viewers than a show at that time would typically pull.

Two years later, the CW network in the States ran the ITV-produced first season over the summer. The ratings impressed them, and they ordered a second season of original episodes to air in 2015.

2 Million Watched Series Two

Some things changed for season two: notably, the show was now shot at the Penn and Teller Theatre in Las Vegas. Recording there made sense now that the show is technically a US production. The second significant change, and a knock-on effect from the change in shooting location, was that the prize of a trip to Vegas vanished. Magicians were already in Vegas performing on the big stage. Now, the award became the trophy and the achievement of fooling P & T.

Shooting in Vegas undeniably eased up the process. Penn and Teller would travel less. They wouldn’t need to build an entire stage as they did for the UK set. Magicians would be keener to come on for free, knowing a trip to Las Vegas to perform their stage was a given.

The second season was a rating hit for CW, giving the network the highest ratings for that time slot compared to the five years before.

1 Million Watched Series Six

Alyson Hannigan replaces Ross as host after the second season. It’s honestly pretty mind-blowing how long the show has run. It even survived covid, shooting with a virtual audience for one-half of season seven.

I can’t believe they haven’t run out of magicians, though — they have had to invite people back multiple times, they’ve heavily produced acts, and the casting producer is even appearing on indie magic podcasts eager to muster up more contestants. The Fool Us Instagram account even has a plea for new contestants in their bio:

Send your greatest trick to!!

Look at that double exclamation point. I can feel the panic in those exclamation points typed out by a desperate casting producer so sick of watching terrible magic videos.

Most amazingly, is the fact Penn and Teller themselves have not run out of tricks. When they first signed on to do the pilot, they agreed they would perform a trick of their own at the end of every episode. It’s great — what a lovely format point. I’m sure they did not imagine the show would run for over 116 episodes when they agreed to perform an original trick in each episode.

That. Is. Insane.

0.5 Million Watched Series Nine

Season nine just launched last week to the tune of 0.55 million viewers. The first episode tends to be one of your most viewed, with extensive marketing spending running up to it. 0.5 million is not a lot of viewers.

Still, the third episode’s ratings are usually how TV series get judged by commissioners.

The videos get far more views on YouTube, and while the AdSense for these viral clips is getting claimed, it’s standard practice for this to go to the production company — not the channel.

The CW channel makes its money from the adverts shown to TV viewers. All half a million of them. So, you’ve got to start wondering — who’s paying for this?

My take is that what started as a huge rating hit has slowly sunk into being a show that is relatively easy and cheap to produce and works as a marketing machine for the Penn and Teller Live Show in Vegas.

You see — the show is shot there, it stars Penn and Teller, and it positions them as the best magicians in the world — I know who I reckon is paying for it.

What a wonderful marketing engine on their doorstep.