Sunday, August 20, 2000

Reality has taken over network TV




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        TV's new reality — get used to it. Record summer ratings for CBS' Survivor, coupled with the smashing success of ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire, could change TV's landscape for years.

        Survivor, imported from Sweden, has opened the U.S. borders to many popular European “reality” shows that don't need high-priced actors or writers.

        “Reality programming is definitely here,” said Scott Sassa, NBC West Coast president. “This is not just a fad, it's a trend. People are very interested in reality programming. It's going to be around for a while.”

        Here's why:

WHAT'S NEXT
  Some reality TV shows in the works:
  • Since You've Been Gone (Sept. 11 on Fox):People shut off from society and media for a week try to guess what they missed.
  • Chains of Love (NBC): Four men are shackled to one woman, who cuts one guy loose each day. The last contestant wins a date with her.
  • Love Cruise (Fox): Nine single men and nine single women take a 10-day cruise. Each day a man and woman are sent home, until they get down to one lucky couple.
  • The Mole (ABC): Based on a Dutch show, 10 people perform a series of difficult tasks as a team. But one is a “mole,” or saboteur. Each week, the player knowing the least about the Mole is sent home, until only the Mole and the winner are left.
  • Temptation (Fox): Five couples “at a crossroads in their relationships” vacation with 30 singles. After dating two weeks, each member of the couple must decide between a possible new love and his or her old flame.
  • The Runner (ABC): Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are producing this 13-episode midseason show about a person attempting to cross the U.S. without being caught.
  • Pop Stars (WB): In a female version of ABC's Making the Band, WB will document the formation of a Spice Girls-like group.
  • Jailbreak (ABC): Based on an English show, 10 prisoners must overcome mental and physical challenges to escape.
        • Survivor has attracted young viewers coveted by advertisers to CBS for the first time since 1994.

        “Thanks to Survivor and Big Brother, CBS' median (audience) age in prime-time has gone down three years,” said Les Moonves, CBS Television president and CEO.

        • Drawing more than 28 million Survivor viewers each week has helped boost ratings for Bryant Gumbel's struggling Early Show, David Letterman's Late Show and all four CBS daytime soap operas.

        Survivor, Millionaire and Big Brother also have reversed the annual summer audience erosion for the first time since 1993.

        • Reality and game shows cost much less than situation comedies and dramas. Before the May 31 Survivor premiere, Mr. Moonves boasted that it would make a profit, regardless of ratings, because it had been fully sponsored by eight companies.

        Networks have been experimenting in recent years with low-cost alternatives like Millionaire, news magazines and the improvisational Whose Line Is It Anyway?

        Millionaire has been an unprecedented phenomenon — a hit show airing three or four original episodes a week for eight months.

        “If we wanted to, we couldn't produce (a new) ER three nights a week . . . (or) produce ER originals all around the year,” Mr. Sassa said.

        • By expanding Millionaire to four hours a week in October, ABC will debut only four new fall series, its lowest number ever.

        Could ABC be banking too heavily on Millionaire, which has replaced eight sitcoms or four hour-long dramas?

        “We don't look at this as mortgaging our future,” said Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment co-chairman. “We honestly look at it as . . . giving us a better chance of having a successful future.”

        • Emmy-winning producer Marian Rees (Love Is Never Silent, Foxfire, Ruby Bridges) has found it harder to sell TV movies to networks looking for the next Survivor.

        “There's been a major recognizable shift in what they're really asking for,” she said.

        WB Entertainment President Susanne Daniels said she has been pitched more than 50 reality show concepts.

        • Networks also may stockpile reality shows preparing for a writers' and actors' strike next year.

        The Screen Actors Guild contracts with the networks and Hollywood studios expire June 30. (SAG has been on strike against advertisers for four months.) The Writers Guild of America network-studios contract expires May 1.

        The unions want higher residual payments for cable TV shows. The current system, established in the late 1980s — when cable had far fewer viewers — has paid stars, writers and producers a flat rate for a cable show, no matter how many times it was repeated.

        • Survivor has changed the boundaries of what was acceptable in prime-time. Now networks can do “a show where people would eat rats and eat bug larvae,” Mr. Sassa said. “In this Swiss Family Robinson context of people on an island, the public seems to say, "It's fine.' ”

        • Some programmers claim reality shows can draw big ratings only in summer against reruns. But the same thing was said when Millionaire debuted as a two-week stunt last August.

        So Survivor 2: Australian Outback premiering Jan. 28 will be a crucial test for the genre.

        CBS and NBC executives stress that they won't abandon sitcoms and dramas.

        “While we will be aggressively going after reality programming, we are never going to abandon story-form programming because we feel this is the essence of why people watch network TV,” Mr. Sassa said.

        Said Mr. Moonves: “Our bread and butter is still the Judging Amys, and JAGs and 60 Minutes of the world.”

        NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier noted that TV networks, since their inception, have broadcast game shows, Candid Camera,wrestling and “other forms of programming” in prime-time.

        “What the audience is basically telling us is they just want to see a little bit more diversity than we're showing them right now in terms of the different kinds of programs,” Mr. Ancier said.

        • Finally, the good news: Fewer sitcoms and dramas could mean better sitcoms and dramas. The sitcom explosion in the 1990s, with the launch of WB and UPN, depleted the ranks of quality TV writers and producers.

        A strong dose of reality has fixed that.

        “A lot of people who were just OK producers are not working at this point,” Mr. Ancier said. “And that probably is a good thing.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. E-mail: Johnkiese@yahoo.com.



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