Sunday, January 19, 2003

Reality succeeds with drama



LOS ANGELES - OK, here's the reality about "reality TV":

Unscripted or scripted, people want good storytelling and compelling characters.

That's the secret to the success of Survivor, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Amazing Race and The Surreal Life.

All are editing marvels. Producers cull through hundreds of hours of boring video to find the essentials of good drama - conflict, emotion, character revelation, humor - and assemble it.

Mark Burnett (Survivor) and Mike Fleiss (The Bachelor/Bachelorette) have set the gold standard for dozens of reality shows soon to fill the airwaves.

"The cast is key in these reality shows, but ultimately the audience loves the stories," says Mr. Fleiss, the new King of Reality TV. He also produces WB's High School Reunion, ABC's new Am I Hot? and The Will.

"Really, it's no different than a scripted drama, or a movie, at the end of the day. It's just a well-told story," he says.

ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne says Mr. Fleiss' point-of-view has made a critical difference in his shows, which she calls "alternative" programs.

"He is not cynical. He actually goes into each of these shows with a belief that they are big, dramatic, important shows," Ms. Lyne says.

"He is obsessed with the details, making sure each episode has a great overall narrative story arc."

The same can be said about Mr. Burnett and Survivor.

Here comes an overdose

American TV is about to overdose on reality series because this form of storytelling resonates with 18- to 34-year-olds who have seen MTV's The Real World for a decade.

Advertisers pay a premium to reach this elusive group, which has not developed the consumer habits or brand loyalties of older viewers.

"There's no way the broadcast networks are going to ignore a genre that has the kind of appeal that `alternative' series do, particularly for 18-34-year-olds," Ms. Lyne says.

Young singles watch The Bachelor/Bachelorette the way families see traditional family sitcoms as a reflection of themselves on TV, Ms. Lyne says.

"If you're 27 and you're unmarried and looking for the guy, then to be able to see 25 women just like you ... going through the experience on television for your benefit is extremely compelling," she says.

"The biggest goal most people have in their lives is to find the person you will spend the rest of your life with, to love forever. So the stakes are very high, and you get to experience the process of trying to find a mate - and the agony and the highs that people go through trying to get there," she says.

For a network, however, the ratings' highs from reality TV can be addictive.

"Everybody is looking for that quick fix," says Les Moonves, CBS president and CEO.

Admits Ms. Lyne: "This reality craze can be like crack for network executives."

Stability is a problem

Big ratings for a six-week reality series "is a short-term gain and a long-term problem" in a 35-week network TV season, says Jordan Levin, WB Entertainment president. "They're not going to allow for the stability that a quality scripted series is going to provide you long term."

That's why networks need a balance of prime-time dramas, comedies, news and reality/alternative shows.

CBS and WB executives sniff that ABC and Fox already are hopelessly hooked on reality.

ABC, which has no traditional scripted shows among Nielsen's top 25 series this season, will premiere a dozen new reality series in the next nine months. ABC's highest-rated shows this season are The Bachelorette (No. 9), Monday Night Football (No. 11), The Bachelor (No. 13), John Ritter's new 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-Age Daughter (No. 30) and Jim Belushi's According to Jim (No. 32).

Ms. Lyne says reality won't "take over" ABC's prime-time schedule.

"We are definitely going to make our way into this new programming craze, but absolutely not at the expense of developing and nurturing our scripted programming," Ms. Lyne says.

Ratings spikes for Joe Millionaire and The Bachelorette this month, as networks prepare their fall season pilots, mean viewers will see an unprecedented number of reality programs this year.

"I'm sure this spring, and probably next fall, we (networks)... collectively probably will have overdone it," says Mr. Moonves of CBS.

That's what happened to game shows after Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The same will likely happen to many reality shows.

"At some point, I think people get sick of (reality TV)," predicts actor William Petersen, star of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, TV's No. 1 series.

Sick? Maybe. But reality TV will never die. The DNA of all outstanding TV shows is good story-telling - regardless (of) whether it's scripted with fictional characters or told through real people. That's TV's new reality.


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