About That Scripted TV Renaissance? Never Mind

Tuning In: Brian Steinberg on the Changing TV Industry

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Reality bites: After generating tons of chatter about making new investments to high-quality scripted entertainment, the broadcast networks are falling back on that most reliable of cheap substitutes: reality programming. You can blame viewers for the retreat.

NBC is bringing back 'The Marriage Ref.'
NBC is bringing back 'The Marriage Ref.' Credit: NBC
With NBC under pressure to restore some luster to its name after becoming the network of "The Jay Leno Show" and "The Biggest Loser" last season, we heard lots of talk about the need to invest in better scripted programming -- from all the networks. NBC touted a dizzying array of selections, ranging from "The Event" to the Jimmy Smits vehicle "Outlaw." Fox put a lot of time into promoting "Lone Star," a drama set in the Texas oil industry. And ABC touted a new Dana Delany vehicle, "Body of Proof" (which has yet to show up on air).

Now that the season is in full bloom, it's safe to say that a lot of this buzz has dissipated. Gone are the vaunted "Lone Star" (after just two episodes), "Outlaw," "School Pride" and "Undercovers." Two others, Fox's "The Good Guys" and "Running Wilde," seem likely to end after their initial orders run out.

What's coming next? Well, it looks as if we're in for a new reality bubble, with NBC bringing back "Minute to Win It" and "The Marriage Ref," Fox testing out "Million Dollar Money Drop" (yes, it's a game show, but it's still unscripted), ABC rolling out "Skating With the Stars" and "Winter Wipeout" and even CBS experimenting with Paula Abdul's "Got to Dance" for sometime early next year.

Talking about the aesthetics of the one-hour drama and the half-hour sitcom is certainly laudable, but these guys are running a business. The simple fact is that shows like the above are much cheaper to produce, and -- when they hit -- tend to draw a decent rating that helps the networks nab their ad dollars. The shows don't do very well in the aftermarket -- there's not much reason to tune in to reruns of "Dancing with the Stars," or even go out and buy a DVD of a season's worth of programs when the winners have been so publicly cited -- but these concepts are all about drawing the notice of a fickle audience, without spending a ton of money, until the next new thing comes along.

Until viewers throw more of their attention to the scripted dramas they claim they want to see on broadcast, you can expect to see reality programs, game shows and all combinations thereof continuing to sprout on the prime-time grid.

More commercials in TV on the web: Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting unit is the latest TV purveyor to try to make the case that people who watch TV shows online are eager, ready and waiting to watch the same number of commercials they see when they watch in old-school boob-tube style, according to The New York Times. Turner's efforts add to the drumbeat of TV networks trying to turn their online streams into as big a revenue-generator as their TV broadcasts. We've reported several times on efforts by the CW to make this happen and by Nielsen to enable it.

We suggest online viewers over the next two years can expect a bevy of TV outlets to start running all those ads they once used the web to avoid.

The simple facts are these: Without the ad and subscription revenue, these companies can' t continue to run programs for free or for a fraction of the money they might normally get. The computer monitor really is becoming the TV screen -- ads and all.

There's one potential upside if the networks make commercial breaks online match ad loads on regular TV: They might stop blocking Google TV from accessing their websites. That's a widespread practice now because if consumers watch online streams of TV shows on their TVs -- instead of watching the networks' regular, ad-heavy feeds -- the networks make less money.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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