Reality seeps in at networks

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In the best of times, the TV industry plays follow-the-leader: After a breakout hit, Hollywood produces clones of the successful show, trying to capture some of the original's excitement. * But what happens when there's a new, hot programming form nailing big ratings, delivering sought-after 18-to-49-year-olds; is relatively inexpensive to produce; and it doesn't require professional actors and writers, at a time when Hollywood has spent the year preparing for creative union strikes?

You get reality TV-lots and lots of reality TV.

In presentations with advertisers and ad agencies in advance of the upfront ad market, networks have signaled that reality will be one of the hallmarks of the 2001-02 season.

"It's the one kind of programming that's new and fresh," observes Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP-broadcast research at True North Communications' TN Media, New York. Similarly, cable TV networks are joining the reality craze, and the form is front and center among new syndicated programs selling to local TV stations.

Advertisers seem to like the idea. Pepsi-Cola Co., according to agency executives, has signed an $8 million deal to sponsor ABC's "The Runner," a reality show modeled after the game of hide-and-seek (AA, April 30). CBS' powerhouse "Survivor" took product placement to new heights by weaving its sponsors' products into the drama.

"The Target symbol being used as a shelter for people; people treating [Pepsi-Cola Co.'s] Mountain Dew like it was the finest French champagne. It was far more valuable than a few 30-second spots," says CBS Television President-CEO Leslie Moonves. "Clearly, it fits into the reality genre a lot better than it would into drama or comedy."


Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research at TN Media, thinks the reality trend is positive-for advertisers, for TV networks and audiences.

Look at today's TV programs vs. those of 10 or 20 years ago, he says. Audiences no longer tune in to what he terms "lowest common denominator programming." "Something like `The Dukes of Hazzard,' which can be No. 2 in 1980, is going to be canceled today," Mr. Sternberg says.

Before reality TV hit, the shows occupying those time periods weren't performing well. Now, that's changed. "These reality shows are improving overall usage for the night, they're cheaper and they're providing boosts for the programs that follow," he says.

Does he see any standouts among the crop of new reality shows? ABC's "The Runner" looks like a winner to him. Mr. Sternberg says ABC plans to promote it heavily, and it's also planning an Internet tie-in that he thinks could engage the public. Audiences tracking the Runner will sign up online as registered agents, and Mr. Sternberg envisions groups forming syndicates to increase their chances of finding the athletic loner.

"I think it's a fascinating format and it's going to do very well," Mr. Sternberg says.

"The Runner" will also use product placement in much the same way sponsors products have been woven into storylines in "Survivor." This can work, as long as it's not too obvious or intrusive, according to Mr. Sternberg. "You don't want it to look like a big promo," he says.

Jeff Gaspin, NBC exec VP-alternative series, long form and programming strategy, sees reality as a new genre that's becoming a programming staple, like comedy or drama.

"There's going to be more reality programs on the networks this year, next year and into the future," he says.

Reality-or unscripted TV-has variations. There's the flashy question-and-answer spectacles, such as ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and then there's the cash-seeking contestants engaged in elaborate trials in exotic locations, embodied by CBS' powerhouse "Survivor."

There's also an ever-expanding list of reality shows built around the mating habits of twentysomethings, such as UPN's four-girls-and-a-guy shackled in "Chains of Love." Reality programs offer immediate solutions to current programming problems, but these shows aren't risk-free. The genre probably will never earn the kind of respect that leads to industry awards, and reality programs generally don't fetch top ad rates ("Survivor: The Australian Outback" being a big exception, garnering the highest rates of any CBS show, according to CBS' Mr. Moonves).

Reality also doesn't repeat as well as scripted programs. And casting civilians in entertainment programs can be dicey, as Fox discovered when two supposedly unencumbered "Temptation Island" contestants fessed up that they'd produced a child together. CBS and "Survivor 2" got into hot water with Australian authorities when contestant Colby Donaldson lifted coral from the Great Barrier Reef.

But such problems aren't cooling programmers' ardor for the form. By the count of Paul Schulman, president of Schulman/Advanswers NY, a New York-based media buying agency, as many as 15 reality shows will air through fall. And autumn will bring another raft of reality.

NBC, initially cool to the trend, is embracing it with gusto. "We're not going to be left out of the game this time," asserts Mr. Gaspin.

A likely summer series for NBC: "Fear Factor," an hourlong prime-time series in which contestants compete for a $50,000 prize through scary feats such as falling from a 20-story building.

ABC's "You Don't Know Jack," based on a popular CD-ROM game and probably coming this summer, will bring a slightly off-center perspective to the game show with Paul Reubens, of Pee Wee Herman fame, in the guise of host Troy Stevens. The network also is readying a new installment of the action/mystery show "The Mole."


Fox is readying a new installment of the controversial "Temptation Island." It also has an array of specials and pilots, including "EndGame," a drama in which contestants plopped into a remote village try to discern the real residents from actors.

The WB has several reality pilots it's labeling "strike proof" in materials disseminated to Madison Avenue, including "Lost in the USA," involving recreational vehicle drivers and bizarre missions, and "Elimidate Deluxe," in which one girl goes on a lavish date with four prospective suitors in an exotic locale each week.

WB Co-President Jordan Levin says he ordered more reality pilots than he ordinarily would because of possible strikes, but he insists the WB was moving this way in any case. "Our audience [young adults/teens] is very comfortable with reality TV," he says.

It's too soon to tell if UPN's "Chains of Love" is the dud it appears to be, but that network also has other reality alternatives in development.


CBS sits atop the network heap with "Survivor" and its supersize ratings. "Survivor" has helped that network attract younger demographics and given ratings boosts to several other CBS shows, in addition to helping launch "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"Survivor 3: Africa" will air later this year, and CBS programming executives fantasize that this cash cow could go on forever.

"Couldn't you see a `Survivor 10' ... `Survivor 12'?" asks Mr. Moonves. "If a `Law & Order' can go on for 10 years, why couldn't `Survivor'?"

The network is also bringing back "Big Brother" with a new cast and executive producer, and among CBS' pilots is "The Amazing Race," an action-adventure series with a $1 million prize, for summer or fall.

Mr. Moonves is keeping plans loose in case of a labor standstill. "If there's a strike, you will see a lot more reality, and `Big Brother' will get shifted into the fall immediately," he says.

Cable TV networks are on the bandwagon. USA Networks has enlisted "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett for "Combat Missions," a series involving competition among teams of ex-Green Berets and Navy Seals, starting in September. "Worst-Case Scenario," based on a popular book, is in the works for Superstation TBS for January.


Even the Bravo film and arts network is in on the action, dispatching cameras to follow struggling thespians as they suffer through "cattle call" auditions and other indignities (no word on whether the casting couch will appear) in an original 13-part series, "The It Factor," airing in October.

Syndicators are in the game with several new relationship shows, including Columbia TriStar Television's "ShipMates," a daily half-hour series blending exotic ports of call with first dates, for fall 2001, plus others such as "The Fifth Wheel," "Rendez-View" and "Elimidate."

Strikes have been on programmers' minds, but Mr. Schulman believes there's another factor at work in the reality craze-mainly the absence of breakout comedies with youth appeal. "If they [Hollywood] were able to churn out winning comedies, you would see less of these [reality shows]," Mr. Schulman says.

Russ Krasnoff, president of programming and production with Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, disagrees.

"Audiences are responding to these shows because they are compelling," the executive insists. "They [audiences] are somewhat tired and bored with traditional formats."

Hollywood programmers are sitting through increasingly elaborate reality programming pitches.

"Everyone and their distant fourth cousin has a sliver of an idea that he or she thinks is a reality show," says the WB's Mr. Levin. "They feel cameras can be turned on and people will watch anything, no matter how ridiculous or absurd."


Of course, original, engaging ideas are hard to come by, and with reality shows, execution is all.

"At the core, these shows have to be dramatic," points out Mr. Krasnoff. Casting is vital, but success mostly rests with artful selection of footage. "These shows are made in post-production," he says.

Mr. Schulman sees few breakouts among the pilots he's watched, and he and others anticipate the inevitable shakeout, similar to what happened in seasons past with the proliferation of court shows and animated fare.

According to Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group: "There gets to be a saturation point."

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