Harsh 'reality' for networks

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Broadcast networks betting the survival of next spring's lineup on "Survivor" clones may be left stranded without ad dollars in the current soft advertising market.

Networks are set to debut as many as a dozen limited reality-series and game shows heading into next spring. But many of the projects will have a hard time inking ad deals because of the weakness, which began when national TV advertisers severely cut network buys just before the start of the current season.

"I don't know if I had a lot of money whether I would be committing to an untested entity now," said John Lazarus, senior partner of national broadcast for TN Media, New York. "There is going to be lot of inventory out there at a lot of good pricing. I'd really have to think twice about making a commitment to a limited series unless for some reason there is a marketing need."

ABC will be among the first to launch a reality show in January with a nine-week series called "The Mole." Advertisers have already seen initial pricing plans, starting at $2.1 million per sponsorship.

The show's premise: 10 people travel to 40 cities over 28 days to accomplish set tasks. The more they accomplish, the more money they win. But one participant is a traitor whose goal is to sabotage the proceedings. After each task, the group is quizzed on the identity of the mole, and one player is eliminated from the contest. The surviving player wins all the money, up to $1 million.

Advertisers get nine 30-second units (one per telecast), two billboards, an extensive presence on ABC.com, and sponsorship of an online contest.

ABC's other reality project, from actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is dubbed "The Runner," and, according to executives, carries a bigger asking price than "The Mole." Executives say "The Runner" has made some ad deals. NBC is considering a potential real-life space adventure, "Destination Mir," as well as two others, "Nerves of Steel" and "Sweet Revenge," and a game show "On the Cover."

UPN's first effort, "Manhunter," will feature participants in a remote setting attacking each other with paintball-type guns. "Chain of Love," another spring project, features a man chained to a number of women. Both are six-episode runs.

In addition to "Survivor: The Australian Outback," CBS has a "global adventure series" project, previously known as "Race Around the World."

"Survivor" sponsorships initially set back advertisers $4 million for the 13-week summer series. For "Survivor 2" which begins after the Super Bowl for the February sweeps, the price tag jumped to $12 million. Virtually all initial sponsors signed for another run.

TV and ad execs note CBS, with its early sale of "Survivor 2," siphoned away much of the available money. CBS made deals long before the marketplace collapsed.

"There aren't a lot of people with $2 million that they haven't spent already," said Chris Geraci, senior VP-national broadcast, BBDO Worldwide, New York. "It's a risky proposition. There is not a lot of business out there looking for stuff to buy."

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