Reality TV experiences makeover as it embraces 'uplifting' projects

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Try this for uplifting: a monster truck with a self-proclaimed redneck comedian from "Blue Collar TV" behind the wheel arrives to help turn a downtrodden double-wide into a spiffed up show place. What happens in the next hour is "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" in a trailer park.

Cue tears of joy.

It remains to be seen if audiences will embrace "Mobile Home Disasters," which stars comedian Bill Engvall and will air this spring on the WB network, but programming executives at the major broadcasters are all betting on their own versions of a feel-good formula that has made "Extreme Makeover" a powerhouse in unscripted programming.

Networks are investing in a number of new projects that are 180-degree departures from the backbiting competition shows that have been successful over the past few years and the two-timing angst-filled relationship series that have largely fallen from favor.

NEW GENRE

The new do-gooder subgenre will see such fare as the upcoming NBC special called "Three Wishes," hosted by Christian pop star Amy Grant. The show, due to air this spring, will highlight some dire situations or lifelong dreams and help the people involved. It could become a regular series if its ratings are strong.

Fox plans "Who Wants to Live Forever?" a program that predicts when participants will die and then helps them extend their lifespan through dieting, exercise, breaking bad habits and the like. ABC plans to air "Miracle Workers," a six-episode series that focuses on cutting-edge medical professionals and the patients they treat.

"Just a few years ago, we were all trying to figure out what the next `When Animals Attack' would be," said Andrew Glassman, executive producer of "Three Wishes." "Now, we're spending our time coming up with ideas about being nice to people."

The reasons are clear: TV viewers have flocked to "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which consistently wins its time period in the key adults 18-49 demographic.

Madison Avenue has embraced the trend, with such blue chip marketers as Sears and Ford Motor Co. embedded into "Extreme Makeover."

This week, Sears' relationship with "Extreme Makeover" was cited as one of the more successful branded-entertainment deals, according to an Association of National Advertisers survey of marketers.

"There's nothing controversial in shows that are spiritually and morally uplifting," says Shari Ann Brill, VP-director-programming, Aegis Group's Carat.

Hollywood production company Renegade 83 is partnering with Steve Harvey's Nu-Opp on "Mobile Home Disasters" and with DreamWorks on "Miracle Workers."

"Two years ago, we couldn't have sold these shows," says Jay Renfroe, a partner at Renegade, which also produces "Blind Date" for syndication and "The 4400" for USA Network. "It all goes in cycles, and this is the cycle we're in now."

"The show needs to be unique and have the WB brand on it," Renfroe says. "It can't be derivative."

For all the current interest, the genre isn't new, says Jonathan Storm, veteran TV critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. It harkens back to "Queen for a Day," which Storm says "was too cheesy to put on prime-time TV even in 1958; they had to air it in daytime."

He's not sure how many clones can survive in the marketplace, but he sees why audiences tune in.

"These shows require absolutely no effort to watch," he says. "And apparently, people find them more dramatic than scripted drama."

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