Sunday, August 12, 2001

We're about to get a bigger dose of reality

        Reality was never like this.

        Never have we seen so many reality shows, TV's newest cheap, alternative programming format — following the footsteps of news magazines, sleazy talk shows, docudramas and news re-creation shows such as Rescue 911.

        A record number of unscripted reality shows will fill the networks' fall prime-time schedules: Survivor 3, Temptation Island 2, Lost, Lost in the USA, Love Cruise, The Amazing Race, The Weakest Link, The Runner and Popstars 2.

        Dozens more will be found on cable, as camera crews document the lives of Las Vegas dancers (on E!), cooking school students (Food Network), high school musicians (Disney), wannabe soldiers (USA), NFL players (HBO), women police officers (Oxygen) and female doctors (Lifetime).

        Even ESPN has hopped on the trend, as if live baseball and football games weren't real enough. ESPN plans urban extreme games in Chicago (with events like climbing the Sears Tower steps); a reality game show called Beg, Borrow and B.S.; and the Real World of minor-league pro basketball players.

[photo] The 16-member cast of Fox's Love Cruise.
(Fox photo)
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        Nobody knows how soon this flavor-of-the-month will flame out, but one thing is for sure: Like news magazines and talk shows, reality always will be part of the TV landscape.

        “Make no mistake, unscripted programming is a force that's here to stay,” said Les Moonves, the CBS president and CEO who put on Survivor last year. “Like news magazines, reality has earned a place as part of a balanced schedule, but scripted programming will still comprise the lion's share of CBS' lineup.”

        Mean-spirited reality shows like NBC's summer Fear Factor and Spy TV have outraged TV critics — not unlike our complaints in my 15 years on the beat about the overdose of ripped-from-the-headlines docudramas, news magazines (Dateline NBC, etc.) and crass talk shows.

        NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, expecting to be grilled by critics at the press tour last month, wore a bullet-proof vest to his press conference to defend Fear Factor and Spy TV.

        “We have to appeal to the widest audience possible with many diverse tastes,” said Mr. Zucker, former Today show executive producer. “Not everyone is going to be a fan of The West Wing ... A huge segment of our audience is telling us they want to watch Fear Factor.”

        NBC executives stressed that scripted sitcoms and dramas always will be the core of the big broadcast networks, because cable channels can't afford to make them. That's why Comedy Central just canceled the That's My Bush! White House sitcom. And Mr. Zucker noted that Fear Factor and Spy TV won't be on the fall schedule — though they've been renewed as midseason replacements.

        So why has reality taken a big bite out of TV? Network programmers offered these explanations at the press tour:

        • Cheap: Inexpensive reality shows, like news magazines, have helped stretch networks' budgets for producing 22 hours of prime-time series each week.

        “We can't afford 22 hours (a week) of The West Wing,” Mr. Zucker said.

        “It's not like Fear Factor replaced The West Wing,” he noted. Fear Factor, Spy TV and the Weakest Link replaced an hour of Dateline, and the failed Daddio-Tucker sitcom block “which wasn't very good,” he said.

        • Dramas don't repeat: Starting with Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Survivor, summer reality hits became a lucrative alternative to low ratings for drama reruns. Other networks' ratings have hit historic lows this summer, while Fear Factor and Spy TV — like Survivor and Millionaire — brought people to network TV during the summer, Mr. Zucker said.

        “We are proud ... that we've kept the lights on this summer,” he said.

        • Attract young viewers: Reality programs attract the generation that grew up with camcorders and MTV. That's who advertisers want to reach — elusive consumers ages 18-34 who haven't developed brand loyalties. Network programmers desperately want to deliver that demographic to sponsors.

        “Young people are interested in stories that have to do with themselves, and what they perceive as themselves on television,” said Gail Berman, the Fox Entertainment president who put on Temptation Island last winter.

        “Young viewers are “growing increasingly tired and more skeptical about ... story-form programming,” said Dean Valentine, UPN president and CEO.

        Said Mr. Zucker: “If we ignore this part of the audience that likes these programs that's under the age of 35 — and we don't have programs that bring those viewers in — where are we going to be in five years when nobody under the age of 20 or 25 has been watching NBC?”

        • Voyeurs and hams: Reality TV appeals to mankind's basic instincts for people-watching and seeking fame.

        “Just watching real people, it can be fascinating,” said James Cameron, who produced Titanic, True Lies, Aliens and Fox's Dark Angel. “I understand the appeal.”

        Producers have found no shortage of people who want their 15 seconds of fame. The second Survivor attracted 49,000 applicants, eight times the number for the original Survivor. More than 60,000 applied for Temptation Island 2, six times the total for the first series.

        “A large amount of these people wanted primarily to be on television, which is pretty normal, Survivor creator Mark Burnett said.

        Reality show contestants were aware of the potential for fame and “the benefits of possibly being on television,” said Mark Walberg, Temptation Island host.

        • Proven hit in Europe: After Millionaire, Survivor and The Mole became huge hits in Europe, American networks couldn't ignore reality TV.

        Producers of The Real World, launched in 1992 on MTV, spent almost a decade persuading programmers to try reality shows, said Mary-Ellis Bunim, co-creator of the MTV series.

        “They were reluctant, because they didn't have a script to react to,” said Ms. Bunim, also co-creator of MTV's Road Rules, ABC's Making the Band and Fox's Love Cruise debuting Sept. 11. “Then reality just exploded in Europe ... with huge ratings and increased demos.”

        • Attract more viewers: The prospect of big ratings with lucrative young viewers for a relatively small investment made reality programming easy for cable channels to copy.

        A perfect example is ESPN, which wanted to expand its base beyond sports fanatics to “casual sports fans and more women,” said Mark Shapiro, ESPN senior vice president.

        His new ESPN Original Entertainment division will produce Road Rules-like reality competition shows; Real World-style soap operas about athletes' lives; and TV movies. (The first film will be a docudrama based on John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink, about Bobby Knight's 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers.)

        “The more vehicles of entertainment we can give our sports fans, the more they're going to stay (with ESPN),” he said.
        The hot reality TV trend has raised the same questions that docudramas, talk shows and news magazines did years ago: How much is too much?

        When will the reality boom go bust in the cyclical world of TV? (Remember that sitcoms were declared dead before The Cosby Show came along in 1984.)

        A crucial test comes next month, the first fall filled with reality shows. How will Love Cruise, Lost or The Amazing Race fare against first-run scripted dramas and comedies? (The same question was asked about Millionaire and Survivor — and they remained Top 10 shows against original scripted shows.)

        If reality shows can win their fall time periods, how many more “unscripted” shows will consume prime-time slots once exclusively devoted to sitcoms and dramas? Could this be a pivotal shift in the TV business?

        Predicted John Wells, executive producer of ER and The West Wing: “Four or five years from now, we'll actually look back at this two- or three-year period and be able to analyze significant changes in the way that the network (TV) business model works.”

        Reality bites, they say. Just how much, and for how long, we don't quite know yet.

       Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:

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