Toss out the script

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Not many media buyers or advertisers would have guessed during the networks' upfront announcements last May that a game show and a wrestling program were about to change the face of prime-time broadcast TV.

ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has little in common with UPN's "WWF Smackdown!" beyond huge ratings for their respective networks. Both shows fall into the amalgamated programming category referred to as "reality," "alternative" or "non-scripted."

This hodge-podge TV category is expanding. Sports-entertainment hybrids like the "X-Games," news-magazines such as "Dateline NBC," Fox police chase specials, CBS' "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and ABC's serialized documentary "Making the Band" all present buyers options that weren't readily available in prime time five years ago.

"We have learned this season that there is an enormous appetite among viewers for non-scripted programming," says David Marans, senior partner at J. Walter Thompson, New York.

Part of the appeal, he explains, is that viewers don't have to commit to ongoing relationships with the characters that populate sitcoms and hour dramas. Rather, the people who are profiled in segments of newsmagazines and the contestants who appear on "Millionaire" and other game shows such as NBC's "Twenty-One" and Fox's "Greed," come and go before viewers tire of them, he says.

"Someone comes on and you learn a bit about them. Within 20 minutes you've had your relationship with them, and they're gone out of your life," Mr. Marans says. "It's almost sexual. It's a quickie." On scripted shows, he adds, viewers know "the characters are not going to change."

Mr. Marans also says that non-scripted programming overall offers something for every demographic. "Viewers over 35 enjoy newsmagazines," he notes, while younger viewers "like wrestling on UPN and police video specials on Fox."

There's more to come: CBS, ABC and Fox are all preparing new game shows, and CBS is producing two high-profile, non-scripted summer series, "Survivor" and "Big Brother," which invite respective comparisons to MTV's video verite franchises "Road Rules" and "The Real World."

Early next year, NBC will begin televising Worldwide Wrestling Federation Entertainment's Xtreme Football League games on Saturday nights.

Programs in this genre are also appealing to networks because they are "quicker and cheaper to produce" than traditional enter-tainment series, says Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP-broadcast research at TN Media, New York.

Networks are able to produce more editions of such shows for less money than the standard 22-24 episode order for sitcoms, which can cost in excess of $2 million per episode, depending on star salaries, or dramas, which run as high as the $13 million per episode commanded in recent seasons by NBC's "ER."

Further, the reality genre lends itself to "continuous originals," Ms. Koerner notes. The networks are able to run fresh installments of such programming from September-May, without having to rely on holiday and spring reruns simply to fill out a season.

The financial advantages of non-scripted programs don't end with production budgets. Networks and studios often don't make a profit from pricy scripted entertainment programs until they are sold into domestic and international syndication.

"There is more instant gratification with game shows and newsmagazines," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research at Horizon Media, New York. "Dramas and comedies make money later on, in the after market.

Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Initiative Media, New York, says that the ratings performances this summer of CBS' "Survivor" and "Big Brother" will have a significant impact on the future of similar programs in the non-scripted genre. "If they don't work," he says, he doesn't see the other networks embracing such edgy reality projects.

If they do succeed, however, CBS might try to continue one or both franchises in the 2000-01 season, and the other networks will undoubtedly attempt to create similar shows.

Not everyone is happy with all reality fare, especially the video clip compilations Fox has favored in recent seasons.

Earlier this year, Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow told the press that "for several years we've over-relied on the short-term fix of shock reality specials and series. Unfortunately, this over-reliance has come back this season to bite us on the collective behind. Not only has our overall performance declined, but we've even begun to see the dilution of our valuable brand identity. We've heard it from advertisers, from market research and from many [reporters]."

Accordingly, Fox's development for the 2000-01 season has emphasized comedy, drama and science fiction, rather than reality. "Fox is the network that went out and spent the most and did the most to develop new programming," says Tom DeCabia, exec VP, Schulman/Advanswers, New York. "[Fox executives] realized they can't go in that direction any longer. [Shock specials] are great stopgap programming. When other shows fail, they are fast to produce and get on the schedule. They serve a purpose and draw an audience, but they're not drawing the dollars."

With these shock shows, "Fox isn't getting the full value of what a rating point is worth," Mr. DeCabia says. Further, "some clients won't appear" in such programming at all.

Ed Martin is the editor of The Myers Programming Report.

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