Nets gamble on reality

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With Fall ratings in decline and few TV hits, the broadcast networks are reneging on their spring promise to advertisers and loading up on reality programming. The move could anger advertisers, who see such programs as unpredictable and controversial.

The networks "told us they were committed to scripted comedies and dramas," said Ray Warren, managing director, Omnicom Group's OMD. "If that starts to turn the other way that would be a bit of a disservice."

"The old reality is the new reality," said Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Carat North America. "The network execs at the upfront are like running for election, saying `Read my lips, no more reality shows,' right before slipping in the new reality shows."

There is 7.5 hours of reality programming on the 2003 schedule, according to Advertising Age estimates, but that could more than double. There's potential for another 10 hours if all the new reality shows-some proposed for winter, some for spring and others for summer-hit the slate and stick.

Network execs defended their use of reality to boost ratings. "We like to use reality programming appropriately, where it makes sense," said Gerri Wong, senior VP-prime time sales at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC.

More reality shows are coming on the air or being introduced earlier to take the place of sitcoms and dramas that were canceled early in the season, including Fox's "The Simple Life," starring the notorious Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, originally slated for January and now bowing Dec. 1. NBC's Donald Trump vehicle "The Apprentice" moved from February to early January.

Rebecca Marks, a spokeswoman at General Electric Co.'s NBC, said the network did not move up "The Apprentice" for any particular reason. "We just thought we wanted it to air sometime early next year."

`Idol' returns

Fox is bringing back "American Idol" and also introducing a reality show, "Complex," described as a cross between "Melrose Place" and a home improvement show, expected in early spring. Fox executives were unavailable for comment.

ABC just announced a seven-episode order of "The Swap." The show, expected in January, is based on U.K. hit "Wife Swap" and features two women who switch households for 10 days. The network will also introduce "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," a home-renovation show.

Reality shows returning early next year include "Star Search" on Viacom's CBS and "Surreal Life" on Time Warner's WB.

"If you ask advertisers what they are wary of, they will tell you it's untried, new reality programs designed to artificially bolster the young demos for a short period of time, " said David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning at CBS. "We will not introduce any reality programs this year or even in the foreseeable future that are not already proven performers."

The reality rush was interpreted by some as an attempt to reach younger viewers, especially the 18-to-34-year-old men who seem to be viewing less prime-time TV.

"[The networks] are going back to something that might work, especially with young viewers and young men," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-broadcast research and planning at Horizon Media. "If they can get the audience they were guaranteed, advertisers might overlook the fact these aren't the shows they bought in the upfront."

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