Sunday, June 1, 2003

Reality over reruns this summer

Networks bring out more unscripted shows in hopes of keeping viewers from flocking to cable

Now here's a good question. A very good question. If reality shows are dead, then why are they popping up like dandelions all over the TV landscape?

Why have we entered the Dog Eat Dog days of summer, with Cupid helping an Average Joe do Anything for Love on his Race to the Altar?

Why will we see an unprecedented wave of unscripted shows in the next two months, if Are You Hot?, All American Girl and Mr. Personality bombed this spring?

Why? Because the networks know you don't like reruns - so they're counting on your watching these low-budget (sometimes cheesy) first-run shows instead of migrating to cable.

So you'll see For Love or Money instead of Just Shoot Me repeats on NBC, while Fox folks hope you check into Paradise Hotel with Boston Public closed for summer.

Reality TV also explodes again because the networks are doing what they do every summer - burning off shows that weren't good enough for the September-May TV season. That's why you'll see more Baby Bob (8 p.m. Friday) and Drew Carey Show sitcoms, plus Love Shack, Around the World in 80 Dates and Love For Sale.

Except for Fox, the networks are saving their scripted series for fall to please advertisers first, and viewers second. Remember: It's called commercial television.

"Advertisers have spoken up. What they want (in fall) is scripted programming, and quality scripted programming," says Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment president.

"I think advertisers understand the (summer reality) strategy... (to) keep the lights on, and keep the viewership from going to cable," he says. It's the networks' way of providing year-round original programming.

Network hits bottom

Last summer, over-the-air network TV hit an all-time low when the combined audience share for cable channels for the first time surpassed the networks' share. So the networks hope to heat up summer with relationship shows, talent shows (Last Comic Standing), competitions (The Will, Boarding House: North Shore), more relationship shows (Big Brother 4), reality dramas (Crime & Punishment, State v.) and more relationship shows (Who Wants To Marry My Mom).

Here are five original scripted series not to miss this summer:
Out of Order: A movie writer (Eric Stoltz) considers straying from his depressed wife (Felicity Huffman) in a five-week summer series (10 p.m. today, Showtime). Co-starring Peter Bogdanovich, William H. Macy, Justine Bateman, and Kim Dickens.
Keen Eddie: A New York police detective (Mark Valley, The Seige) tracking drug dealers in London clashes with a British boss (Julian Rhind-Tutt (Notting Hill, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). (9 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 19, 45).
Monk: TV's favorite obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub), returns for a second summer of cable's top-rated original scripted series. (10 p.m. June 20, USA).
Sex and the City: It's the beginning of the end for Carrie and friends (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis), as the Emmy-winning comedy airs 12 new episodes this summer (9 p.m., June 20, HBO). The final eight shows air in January.
The O.C.: A troubled working-class teen (Benjamin McKenzie) enters the world of the rich and famous in Southern California's Orange County (O.C.) by moving in with an attorney's (Peter Gallagher, American Beauty) family. (August on Fox)
• Of all the summer reruns, this is the best: Bravo repeats The West Wing Emmy-winning inaugural season (1999-2000) starting Aug. 11 (7 p.m. Monday-Thursday).
Only Fox dares to be different. At 9 p.m. Tuesday it premieres Keen Eddie, a midseason police drama squeezed out of the picture by Mr. Personality and the expandable American Idol. In late summer, a month before the cluttered fall TV season, Fox launches The O.C., a drama about a working-class teen taken in by a wealthy Orange County (O.C.) family.

"We will have, as promised, original scripted programming this summer," says Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president. "Perhaps next summer, all of the networks will be launching scripted shows in the summer."

But Fox has plenty of lite viewing, too. American Juniors, the kiddie version of American Idol, starts an eight-week run Tuesday (8 p.m.), then comes back for another round in the fall. Anything for Love and Paradise Hotel open for business on June 16.

On ABC, Roseanne stars in a 13-week Osbournes-like day-in-the-life series showing her putting together a cooking and talk show for the sister ABC Family channel.

(Here's a warning: You'll also see plenty of According to Jim and 8 Simple Rules reruns. "We're going to be running our comedies like crazy," says Lloyd Braun, entertainment chairman at ABC, which overdosed on reality in March and burned out Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.)

In July, CBS will premiere Big Brother 4 and Cupid, a dating show created by American Idol judge Simon Cowell. CBS President Les Moonves is candid about his prospects: "We will try some things in the summer, and try to catch some lightning in a bottle."

If Cupid works, it could return again, as a select group of summer reality series have done in the past: American Idol, Millionaire, Survivor, Fear Factor.

If it doesn't, Cupid would be tossed onto the pile with Are You Hot?, Married by America and I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!

"Like everything else, the garbage has fallen to the wayside," says Moonves of the spring reality rush.

Plenty of precedence

The fact is, unscripted shows have always been part of prime-time TV in varying degrees: Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, Truth or Consequences, You Bet Your Life, Candid Camera, That's Incredible, Those Amazing Animals, Real People, America's Funniest Home Videos, Cops, Love Cruise, Temptation Island. The new fall lineups include Survivor 7, The Bachelor 4, Joe Millionaire 2, American Juniors 2, Fear Factor and Extreme Makeover.

"Reality has been here forever. It's just been called different things," Zucker says. "I think it's here to stay ... but it's not going to be what it was."

Exactly how much more reality we'll see next winter could be determined this summer. If reality shows don't keep viewers tuned to network TV, we might not see so many when sitcoms and dramas fail next season.

Viewers "have this uncanny ability to find good shows ... and that's the most important thing," Zucker says.

"The audience is becoming far more discerning," says Fox's Berman. "I think that will be even more so after this summer."

Will we watch Anything for Love of network TV? That's the big question this summer.


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