"Reality is the game changer," said Mr. Zucker, describing how the midseason introductions of unscripted programs such as the Peacock hit "The Apprentice" and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s "American Idol 3" have stopped the bleeding and stemmed the loss of broadcast audience share.
During the week of April 5, "The Apprentice" for the first time topped the chart in 18-to-49-year-old viewers with a 10.7 Nielsen rating in the demo. In fact, four of the five top shows that week were reality fare: "American Idol" with 10.1 on Tuesday and 8.9 on Wednesday; and CBS' "Survivor: All-Stars" with 7.9. The Trump season finale on April 15 hit an astounding 13.6 rating in adults 18-49.
At ailing ABC, which just replaced its programming leadership a month before the upfront, the unscripted "Extreme Makeover" boosted the Alphabet network with 18-to-49-year-old viewers. The Sunday night "Home Edition" version built a 4.1 rating season to date, and the original "Extreme Makeover" on Wednesday had a 4.0 rating; on supercompetitive Thursday night, "Home Edition" scored a 2.7 rating season to date.
Even UPN gets real
CBS sibling UPN finally had its first big hit-the unscripted "America's Top Model," which averaged a 2.8 rating and 7 share in adults 18-49 and 5.89 million viewers overall this past season, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show returns in the fall with two new editions.
So just when advertisers and their buyers thought they had a bulletproof argument for finally scrapping or significantly changing the May upfront market-after last year's inventory of scripted dramas and comedies, bought at a high markup, did not perform to expectations-reality programming arrived in midseason and bailed the sellers out.
"It's actually been a much better season than anyone has given it credit," says Mr. Zucker, president-NBC Entertainment, Cable & News Group. "Everyone is asking, `Where's the next "Friends"?' Well, it turns out the next "Friends" is not a half-hour sitcom. It is an hourlong unscripted drama called `The Apprentice.'
"The game has changed. Everyone is looking for the next scripted hit ... there have been some scripted successes such as `Las Vegas' [on NBC], `The O.C.' on Fox and `Two & a Half Men' on CBS. But the fact is what most viewers under the age of 50 are flocking to is a different kind of programming, and you can't deny it. If you look at the top 20 shows in television, 12 of them are unscripted, five are drama and three are comedies."
NBC plans on running 32 first-run hours of "The Apprentice" this coming season, which Mr. Zucker touted as exceeding the 18 first-run episodes of "Friends" that just aired. He also crowed that the show attracts a "Friends" caliber of upscale, $100,000-plus income households, which advertisers love and which is "why our pricing is 15% higher than our nearest competitor."
In fact, there are 10 reality shows this season among the top 25 broadcast prime-time shows that attract adults 18-49 with incomes of $75,000 or more.
The Peacock will continue to tap into this upscale crowd with other unscripted ventures in 2004. "The Contender," a boxing series from Mark Burnett (of "Survivor" and "Apprentice" fame) and hosted by Sylvester Stallone, will debut next January. Its tactic of a midseason kickoff mimics "The Apprentice." Mr. Zucker says that General Electric Co.-owned NBC is betting the show will attract the type of moneyed high-rollers who pay hundreds of dollars for tickets to heavyweight bouts in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
The network is also developing "Plain Jane," a reverse "Average Joe" in which "one incredibly handsome hunk" chooses a date. The audience here: upscale women.
Just how important is the new reality to the networks? At a recent panel discussion of the upfront at the Television Advertising Bureau's annual conference in New York, David Verklin, CEO of Aegis Group's Carat North America, posed a round of "lightning" questions to panelists including Jon Nesvig, president-sales at News Corp.'s Fox Television Group. "What couldn't you live without?" Mr. Verklin barked. Mr. Nesvig candidly replied, "American Idol."
According to media analysts, Mr. Nesvig's retort was as accurate as it was nimble. CIBC World Markets in a recent report said that as a result of the performance of "American Idol 3" and the surprise hit "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," the Fox network will owe less than $10 million in make-goods from ratings underper- formance in the third quarter this year, much less than the more than $100 million that CIBC estimates Walt Disney Co.' ABC will owe.
Aware that it's in danger if it props itself on one reality show alone, Fox is developing a slate starting this summer that features plenty of unscripted fare, such as "The Casino," another Mark Burnett production that the network hopes will be strong enough to carry over into a second season in the fall.
Some critics feel the "The Casino" formula is a big risk because it doesn't involve competition but is rather a documentary-like soap opera set in Las Vegas and therefore difficult to produce in an engaging way.
"Sure, `The Casino' is a gamble," concedes Mike Darnell, exec VP-alternative and special programming at Fox Television. "But Mark [Burnett] did `The Restaurant' [on NBC] last year ... He took a naturally boring subject and made it work. ... Besides, casinos are more interesting than restaurants. That being said, you never know-you just have to throw the dice."
And then there's paris
Fox also has a new season of the Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie barn burner "The Simple Life" coming in June, while also developing, with Endemol USA, its own reality boxing show for the fall hosted by WBC superwelterweight champion Oscar de la Hoya.
While other networks push reality, Viacom's CBS is trying to write a different script for the 2004 upfront, one based on the old-time verities of drama and comedy. Although the Eye net is riding high with the unscripted "Survivor: All-Stars," it hopes to rest its case this year on scripted programming and on continuing to draw the older adults 25-54, whom CBS regards as holding the purse strings. At a pre-upfront breakfast, Chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves said his network will continue to build its investment in scripted programming
"We are not a one-trick pony," Mr. Moonves said, referring to NBC's focus on "The Apprentice." He said the CBS schedule will remain relatively unchanged in 2004, with just 2 hours of reality programming a week. "We don't have to replace more than 4 hours of programming [in 2004]," he said.
However, this summer CBS will air 3 hours of "Big Brother" each week and an hour of "The Amazing Race" starting July 6. The network is also developing an hourlong show titled "The Will," in which family members compete for an inheritance.
Also coming at CBS: a show that will search for a "domestic diva" ( as in the next Martha Stewart) from producer Mike Fleiss, who produced "The Bachelor." The program doesn't have a title or a launch date yet.
"NBC has always had the majority of premium programming," David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning at CBS, said at the press breakfast. "We will be making the case that CBS now has the most premium programs in network television. Going into the upfront, these are the programs that are going to sell."
Mr. Moonves was so confident in CBS' prospects that he predicted double-digit rate increases for advertising in the 2004 upfront despite the fact that most media financial analysts are forecasting mid to high single-digit increases at best. CBS executives have also intimated that they will hold back selling their inventory unless they get the pricing the network deserves.
"Last year, we were the market leader in terms of setting the pricing increase," says Jo Ann Ross, CBS' president-sales. "We went out of the gate with very high increases, and we held the line."
Do media buyers believe reality is the game changer? Have network successes with unscripted fare given them a second lease on life?
Media agency executives contacted by Advertising Age concede that this new reign of reality has helped take broadcast off life support. They say that unscripted shows are not only bringing younger viewers back to broadcast TV, but they are also drawing viewers away from cable.
"Networks don't have to apologize for reality anymore," says Andy Donchin, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Carat North America, New York. "The advertisers are a lot more accepting of unscripted programming. The shows are getting big ratings; they are bringing young viewers back to television. They create water cooler talk. And `Survivor' has shown that these shows have staying power."
Although audience ratings are still down, they would be much farther down if it weren't for the influx of unscripted programming, the buyers say.
"Imagine how far down they would be without the reality shows," says Mr. Donchin.
Reality shows have created viable counterprogramming alternatives to blocks of cop shows, crime dramas and comedies, says Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global USA. "What these blocks tended to do was drive viewers to cable. The reality shows are effective counterprogramming to that."
Some buyers say that sellers at cable nets with big female audiences, such as Lifetime, are telling them they're losing audiences to broadcast reality shows.
"Female viewership is gravitating toward reality because it offers certain dramatic elements, such as `American Idol' ... where they can identify with the character," says Shari Cohen, co-executive director, national broadcast group, at WPP Group's MindShare.
`a well-scripted drama'
"In reality, these aren't reality shows," says Mr. Sternberg. " `The Apprentice' is a well-scripted drama, just like `Survivor' and `The Restaurant'; and `American Idol' is a variety show."
One top ad media negotiator who requested anonymity observes that viewership among adults 18-49 is still down as much as 8%. "We've had plenty of reality on, but we are still down, so I don't know how that is bringing viewers back to broadcast. Maybe on a per-show basis, but not to broadcast overall."
"Higher-rated reality shows come with valuable demographics," says Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic's Initiative Media. "Advertisers have to do their homework. We don't want to pass on the next `Apprentice' while your competition takes a big position in it."