Outwardly,broadcast networks are emphasizing scripted dramas and comedies, but quietly they're assembling a bonanza of new reality fare as midseason fillers.
Cable programmers, meanwhile, are moving aggressively into reality TV for the fall, finding new ways to super-target niche audiences.
"The perception is that reality TV is superficial and appeals to young teenagers, but the viewers are actually quite a bit older and more upscale than previously assumed," says David Marans, a senior partner at WPP Group's MindShare, New York.
Reality TV is rapidly stratifying into new categories of programming, says Kathryn Thomas, associate director at Starcom Entertainment, Chicago, a division of Publicis Groupe.
"Starting this fall we're going to see a lot more crossover between game shows and reality, more shows taking traditional concepts like dating to extremes, and the reality style coming to talk shows," she says.
Edgier reality shows centering on crime scene investigations and military-type operations may also appear by fall 2004, but Ms. Thomas says the failure rate of reality programs will begin to rise dramatically.
The majority of new reality shows for this fall will center on talent and survival competitions, ambush personal makeovers, home and garden makeovers, get-rich-quick schemes, behind-the-scenes glimpses into the daily dramas of chefs and detectives, and a record number of shows about single women searching for Mr. Right in various contexts.
At least one program will involve swapping family members between homes, inspired by a wife-swapping reality program from the U.K., industry insiders say.
Generally bullish on reality TV, most media buyers say they're happy to see the networks' commitment to traditional programming because a healthy mix of that plus reality TV suits advertisers' diversifying objectives.
"Advertisers don't want reality TV to take over the schedule, but they like having it in the mix-it's keeping younger viewers tuned in to network TV at a crucial time," Ms. Thomas says.
News Corp.'s Fox has mastered the ability to score ratings for reality TV debuts, and proved it again with the initial success late last month of "Mr. Personality," its dating show featuring masked men pursuing one woman with the aid of tabloid regular Monica Lewinsky.
But the most successful reality programs hook viewers into multiple story lines over a season, with opportunities to cross-promote them on the Internet and implement product placement, says Aaron Cohen, exec VP-broadcast for independent shop Horizon Media, New York. "Survivor" on Viacom's CBS does this superbly, he says.
"I'd like to see more reality shows that pull in broad audiences and keep them interested with deeper entertainment," he says.
Advertiser squeamishness about the outrageous content of some reality programs is also abating, though agency buyers decline to comment on specific media buys. Advertisers on a recent episode of E! Entertainment Television's reality-based "Anna Nicole Show," for example, included Wendy's International's Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, Diageo's Bass and Dell Computer Corp.
"There was more nervousness among advertisers at the beginning of the reality trend, but it's wearing off; advertisers are getting bolder about some of the edgier programs," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media, New York.
But advertisers aren't reflexively buying into all reality programming, says Mr. Cohen.
"Most advertisers will avoid the more hard-core programs bordering on distaste, and you can be certain many of the shows this fall will push the limits of good taste," he says.
Wary of being copied or pre-empted, the four major broadcast networks are closely guarding details of reality TV shows slated for fall 2003, say media buyers. But buyers fully expect them to rely on many of the same reality genres tried out in the summer.
Meanwhile, cable programmers are dramatically increasing the amount of their programming devoted to reality TV, adapting it to more specialized audiences for cooking, beauty, and home decor and maintenance.
Half of the new upfront-season programming presented by Rainbow Media Holdings' WE: Women's Entertainment network is reality-focused, says Marty von Rudin, exec VP-general manager.
Examples include a new series called "Single in ..." where an unattached woman looks for a man in various cities, and "Diva Detectives," following the exploits of an all-female detective agency in Las Vegas.
"We're getting a lot of interest from advertisers because we're reaching younger viewers with TV that feels more authentic to them than scripted material, and it has a sense of immediacy that works well with brands targeting those who easily adopt new habits and products," says Mr. von Rudin.
E.W. Scripps Co.'s Scripps Networks is unleashing a raft of reality programming for the fall season, including two landscape and yard makeover programs for Home & Garden TV-"Outer Spaces" and "Ground Rules." On Food Network a series will show a chef trying to open a real restaurant with 15 untrained teenagers as employees, and on DIY-Do It Yourself Network, "Trading Bases" will pit the grounds crews of various Major League Baseball teams against one another in sod management.
Reality programming is also providing a window into studying how TV audiences are changing, says Ms. Koerner.
"The new TV environment is very interactive, allowing viewers to connect with it and be part of it in a way that's never existed before," she says. "It's given us an unexpected new route for connecting advertising with new audiences."