Sunday, July 27, 2003

Viewers turn off reality shows

LOS ANGELES - The reality TV bubble has burst. Soon we will return to your regular programming.Stunningly low ratings for this summer's reality shows have convinced network executives that viewers have had their fill of the copycat shows where real people are eliminated from some sort of competition.

In other words, viewers are voting out reality shows with their remotes.

"Every one of these shows look the same, and I think we'd all better learn from that," said Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment chairman, to the Television Critics Association meeting here.

"The days of believing that because it's an unscripted reality show, it's going to get a good (ratings) number ... are over," he says.

CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves has a slightly different take. He says reality ratings are in a tailspin because some networks are putting on "schlock."

"Putting on schlock reality doesn't help you. The quality rises to the top," says Moonves, who launched Survivor as a summer hit in 2000. "There's going to be a Survivor 7 and 8 this year ... (but) I don't think there's going to be an Are You Hot? 8."

Networks - and the audience - have not found a breakout summer reality hit, like Survivor or last year's American Idol.

Ratings for Fox's American Juniors singing competition are down 60 percent from American Idol this season.

The first time David E. Kelley watched Joe Millionaire, he knew his legal drama, The Practice, was doomed on Monday night against it.

He had planned to watch about 15 minutes of the Fox reality show, but his wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, wouldn't let him switch stations.

"I picked up the remote to change the channel, and she said, 'Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! I want to see if that bitch comes back!'

"I knew, 25 minutes into it. I said, 'This show is a monster hit.' And it was."

"We certainly would have loved (American Juniors) to perform better," concedes Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president. "It has certainly not turned into the phenomenon that American Idol has."

NBC's Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, starring Glendale's Mueller family, is down 42 percent from ABC's The Bachelor. ABC's The Dating Experiment is 74 percent below The Bachelor.

NBC's For Love or Money trails Fox's Joe Millionaire dating show by 57 percent. CBS' heavily promoted Cupid, from American Idol's Simon Cowell, is 55 percent lower than The Bachelorette.

WB's Boarding House: North Shore surfing competition ranks No. 223 of 229 shows this TV year, with only 2 million viewers - or 90 percent less than the audience for No. 4 Survivor: Thailand.

Survivor producer Mark Burnett's foray into the Manhattan island with NBC's The Restaurant didn't draw much of a crowd. It was watched by 7.4 million, ranking No. 33 last week.

Even CBS' Big Brother 4 has lost one-third of its viewers from last season.

ABC's Braun blames the viewers' revolt on the glut of reality "vote out" shows.

"They all feel derivative. They're all focused on interpersonal relationships. They generally have some sort of 'vote out' mechanism," says Braun, who contributed greatly to the downfall of reality in the spring with I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!, Are You Hot? and All American Girl.

Reality shows "all have the same look to them. And some of them seem to get progressively more salacious," he says.

Case in point: Are You Hot?, the beauty pageant with judge Lorenzo Lamas' laser-pointer "flaw finder" for flabby abs and thighs.

"I would not do Are You Hot? again. Ultimately, it was in bad taste," Braun says.

More importantly, reality TV is bad business - except for the handful of "gold standard" shows (Survivor, American Idol, The Bachelor) that define a genre.

Reality shows have become more costly because of the rising production expense ($900,000 an hour) and the lack of audience interest in repeats, Braun says. And they're tough to sell to sponsors: "Advertisers for the most part want scripted shows," Braun says.

"Ultimately, very few (reality shows) have the longevity that a hit scripted show is going to have," he says. "Nothing is every going to be as profitable as a hit scripted drama."

Network executives say reality will always be part of the prime-time schedule, but will never dominate it again. Survivor, The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire and Extreme Makeover will be on the fall lineup, along with sitcoms, dramas and news magazines.

And they promise that they won't bait-and-switch viewers at midseason, replacing canceled scripted series with another tidal wave of cheap reality shows.

"We're going to have a very steady diet of scripted, original programming continuing through ... May sweeps," Braun promises.

Old-line Hollywood producers have cheered the demise of reality TV, which eliminated jobs for thousands of writers, actors, producers and crew members.

"The reality trend makes me puke," says Aaron Spelling, whose credits range from Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island to 7th Heaven, Charmed and ABC's new 10-8 police drama with Danny Nucci and Ernie Hudson.

"We have been approached many times about doing (reality). We're not going to do it, at least as long as I'm alive," says Spelling, 80. "Drama (and) comedy, that's what they (the audience) are looking for."

Emmy-winner David E. Kelley, creator of The Practice and Boston Public, called reality shows "trash" and "junk" during the press tour.

"I remember picking up the newspaper not too long ago, and in the same edition were stories that said, 'Joe Millionaire is coming back next year' and '(The West Wing creator) Aaron Sorkin isn't.' And I thought: 'This is a pretty horrifying day.' "


Top reality shows this season, Sept. 23-July 20

Show Audience Rating
1Joe Millionaire22.8 million8.4
2American Idol (Wed)21.9 million8.1
3American Idol (Tue)21.5 million7.9
4The Bachelorette16.7 million6.2
5The Bachelor14.5 million5.3
6Big Brother 312.9 million4.8
7Fear Factor12.2 million4.5
8Celebrity Mole10.9 million4.0
9Star Search10.8 million4.0
10Extreme Makeover10.2 million3.8
11For Love or Money9.9 million3.7
Top summer reality shows, June 1-July 20

Show Audience Rating
1For Lover or Money9.9 million3.7
2American Juniors (Tue)8.8 million3.3
3Big Brother 4 (Wed)8.8 million3.2
4Big Brother 4 (Thu)8.7 million3.2
5Crime & Punishment8.6 million3.2
6Who Wants to Marry My Dad?8.5 million3.1
7Last Comic Standing8.4 million3.1
8For Love or Money 28.2 million3.0
9Amazing Race 48.1 million3.0
10Fame 7.6 million2.8
11Cupid 7.5 million2.8
12Dog Eat Dog7.5 million2.8
13The Restaurant7.4 million2.8

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