Reality Bites Back

Rash Report: Prime-Time Profits and Potential Prime-Time Problems

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- The lure of low costs and high ratings has made reality TV the decade's defining genre. And who can blame the networks? After all, each of the Big Four has undergirded its schedule grid with transformative reality shows.

'Megan Wants a Millionaire'
'Megan Wants a Millionaire' Credit: VH1
For CBS, it was "Survivor" that allowed the network to survive its August audience and transition its schedule to be amongst the highest rated today. "American Idol," the U.K. hit imported by Australian Rupert Murdoch's Fox, has had the most impact on any schedule this decade. ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" continues to make news even off-season, such as last week's announcement that viewers will soon see if right-winger Tom DeLay has two left feet. And for fourth place NBC, one of its rare gains has been from "The Biggest Loser," a reality show that's been an inspiration to many of the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese.

But beyond the success stories are not only dozens of failed facsimiles of reality hits, but the danger of the genre becoming associated with an event that could immediately alter the perception and, well, the reality of reality.

One such event is unfolding right now in the case of Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on VH1's "Megan Wants a Millionaire." He was found hanging from his own belt in a seedy motel in his native Canada after he eluded authorities wanting to question him about the death of his ex-wife, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase. She was identified by her breast implants, as her fingers and teeth had been removed.

The gruesome and grisly details of this case are unique, of course. But it comes after the tragedy of Paula Goodspeed, a rejected "Idol" contestant who idolized Paula Abdul and committed suicide in front of her house. And reality "stars" have had other brushes with the law, including a recent one for Jon and Kate Gosselin, the strange, estranged couple of TLC's "John and Kate Plus 8." The New York Times even featured the volatile video environment on many reality shows with its front-page piece "TV Contestants: Tired, Tipsy and Pushed to the Brink."

And its not just the TV industry, but the advertisers that support it, that are vulnerable to the vagaries of reality shows, as evidenced by today's news that a contestant died during the taping of a Unilever-sponsored reality show.

To be sure, the entire entertainment industry (let alone the rest of society) has its share of prominent problems, be it doping or dopey behavior in sports, or substance or spousal abuse among music or movie stars. And to some degree, the ubiquity of reality, while confirming its success, means more opportunities for something to go wrong.

Last night's schedule, for instance, shows just how much network TV depends on the genre. At 9 p.m. all but the CW ran reality shows, with four programs accounting for 97% of the available ad-centric adult 18-49 audience.

Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," with hot-headed chef Gordon Ramsay, a poster boy for combustible contest-reality shows, led all programs with a 3.6/12 rating and share, which led into reality relationship show "More to Love" (1.7/5), to lead Fox to first with an overall 2.6/8. NBC was right behind with a 2.5/7 with three hours of its summer reality hit "America's Got Talent." CBS was third with a 2.0/6, with its highest rated show, "Big Brother" (2.5/7), designed for conflict. ABC (1.3/4) finished fourth, running two hours of new reality entry "Shaq Vs." (1.1/4 for an 8p.m. repeat and 1.7/5 for an original, matching last week's program premiere). (Summer's other main genre, reruns, resulted in a fifth place .3/1 for the CW.)

Rash gridsEnlarge
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

And tonight's schedule includes the program premiere of what sounds literally like an accident waiting to happen, as ABC launches "Crash Course," which promises an "extreme driving course."

To be sure, no one can blame VH1 or production company 51 Minds Entertainment for one of its contestant's conduct. But another reality show Jenkins was cast for, the now canceled "I Love Money 3," serves as a cautionary media metaphor that despite the potential primetime profits, the TV industry may be nearing a time when the cost/benefit ratio is no longer worth it.

Wednesday: A show perhaps more in keeping with VH1's musical roots: "The Beatles Anthology."

Thursday: Sure, it's only an exhibition, but with every other network scripted show a repeat, the Florida football match-up between the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the best drama on TV.

The program premier of ABC's "Crash Course" to collide with ratings reality, as it's up against NBC's hit "America's Got Talent."


NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.) John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see

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