Prices soared to as high as $500,000 for a 30-second spot on the Feb. 17 final episode of Fox's "Joe Millionaire," during the same week the finale of ABC's "The Bachelorette" also scored high ratings and prices, says Tim Spengler, exec VP-national broadcast for Initiative Media, New York, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.
The numbers caused some observers to believe the frenzy for reality TV may be nearing its peak.
"The trouble is you don't know when you've hit the peak until you fall off the cliff, and that's how it's going to go with reality TV," says Rino Scanzoni, president-broadcast division, North America, for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York. "We're going to hit the wall very suddenly with reality TV, and I'm afraid there will be no warning."
A slate of wacky reality TV shows now in development for the spring season will probably yield fairly hefty prices, say industry insiders, as TV networks and advertisers have overcome their initial skepticism about the genre.
Quick and cheap to produce, the latest batch of reality TV shows reached ratings highs last month, boosting networks' bottom lines significantly. (Mr. Scanzoni says an hour of scripted TV programming costs $1 million to $1.5 million, while reality shows can cost less than half that to produce.)
Examples of new reality fare on the way include NBC's five-episode "Who Wants to Marry My Mom?" The series, airing this spring, features adult children hoping to marry their parents off to new potential mates. Several other programs are in development for various networks based on talent competitions starring everyone from children to senior citizens, inspired by the success of Fox's "American Idol."
What networks find most tantalizing about reality shows is the demographics of their viewers, says Brad Adgate, VP-audience research for Horizon Media, New York.
"Reality shows are bringing in a prime audience of younger people, and networks are going back for more," says Mr. Adgate.
A handful of new shows has yielded only so-so ratings, such as ABC's "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People," which features a panel of celebrities rating the appeal of ordinary folks. But overall, financial losses have been minimal on reality TV, experts say.
There are other benefits to reality TV. "It's less vulnerable to TiVo, because people are more interested in watching these programs in real time so they can be up to the minute with developments," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP-director of SMG Entertainment for Starcom MediaVest Group, Chicago, a unit of Publicis Groupe. "Being a day behind doesn't work with reality TV."
buyers' fear factor
But media buyers are nevertheless exhibiting their own fear factor.
Last month, between 12% and 14% of all entertainment programming was unscripted, says Mr. Adgate, adding that this raises the possibility that viewers are getting away from the habit of watching episodic programs.
"Scripted dramas and sitcoms are the financial bread and butter of network TV," he says, "and there is a definite risk in getting people too far away from it."
In addition, concerns are mounting about how today's reality TV avalanche will dampen production of scripted sitcoms and dramas, which are needed to feed the pipeline for TV's profitable syndication market in upcoming seasons.
"Reality TV doesn't translate to reruns; it's high impact, then its relevance vanishes," says Ms. Caraccioli-Davis.
The syndication market, in which the major TV networks are heavily invested, will definitely suffer from a lack of fresh content in the next few years if reality TV lasts more than a year, Mr. Scanzoni says.
"In TV there's a tendency when something is very successful to do so much of it so quickly that you kill the golden goose," he says, "And with reality TV it's not a question of if this will happen, it's when."
Meanwhile, the ratings of certain shows are eye-popping.
"Joe Millionaire" delivered more than 40 million viewers during its finale, according to Nielsen Media Research, and at one point during the program, nearly 50% of all female viewers between 18 and 24 were tuned in.
Slots on the final episode of "American Idol" in May may go to nearly $1 million, say media buyers, just under the $1.3 million price tag of a :30 on the Academy Awards.
Media buyers, who were treading more cautiously around reality shows last year due to their dubious content, have jumped on the bandwagon and are pushing cross-platform deals.
Viacom scored a coup through its Viacom Plus cross-platform media operation when it secured a multimillion-dollar deal with General Motors Corp. to promote its Saturn Ion coupe through diverse media channels tied to "Survivor: The Amazon," which debuted last month on CBS.
saturn snags `survivor'
Sibling Viacom properties MTV, VH1, TNN and CMT are involved, as well as related Web sites and Viacom-owned radio stations.
Included is a DVD with exclusive "Survivor" content available at Saturn showrooms. Consumers can use the DVD to enter a sweepstakes to win prizes including an Ion and a trip to observe the taping of the finale.
An Ion car will appear in at least one episode of the series, and Saturn will be the primary sponsor of a 1-hour special called "Inside the Tribe," which will air on MTV and VH1. GM's in-house GM Mediaworks agency orchestrated the deal with Starcom MediaVest Group's GM Planworks.
AOL Time Warner's America Online is having a field day with reality TV, and in recent months devised a "Reality TV Showcase" that's driving record numbers of downloads and visitors, says Patricia Karpas, VP-general manager of AOL Television.
In the two weeks leading up to the final episode of "Joe Millionaire," 700,000 people voted on various questions AOL posed to members; 400,000 people downloaded exclusive previews of clips from the show on the night of the finale, she says.
AOL is using the online ratings of its reality TV coverage to sweeten its "entertainment packages" offered to advertisers; sponsors have included Coca-Cola Co., Nestle's Nescafe and American Express Co.
"Reality TV is right at the sweet spot between TV programming and involving the public in our programming; it's a perfect match," says Ms. Karpas.
No media industry executives are na‹ve enough to believe the reality TV craze will continue forever, Mr. Scanzoni says.
"If making expensive sitcoms to sell ads was like heroin for the networks, then reality TV is like crack-it's cheaper and gets you high faster," he says. "But it's going to come crashing down one of these days, and the effects might not be pretty." n