Networks Show Zeal for the Real

Thu Dec 26, 6:23 PM ET
By Michael Schneider

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - In a business known for its sucker bets, reality TV continues to defy the odds.

While the networks continue to struggle with finding the next scripted series phenomenon a la "Friends" or "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," producers of reality shows are churning out pop culture hits -- "American Idol," "The Bachelor" -- on a regular basis.

And the numbers don't lie: Over the last four seasons, the percentage of non-fiction shows making it to a second season far surpasses the number of scripted series stumbling on to a sophomore year.

"The economics are working brilliantly and the demos work," says Eric Schotz, president of LMNO Prods.

As a result, webheads have finally stopped fretting over the emerging dominance of reality shows and are learning to love the beast -- even if some advertisers and critics still want it all to just go away.

"With the continued success of reality comes an elevation of the form in people's minds," says ABC's Andrea Wong, senior VP of alternative series and specials.

Reality's hit a chord partly because of the staying power of the genre's entries.

During the 1999-2000 season -- generally considered the start of the modern non-scripted age, thanks to the explosive appearance of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- six of the season's 12 new non-fiction series were renewed.

In comparison, just four of that year's 30 freshmen comedies and 11 of primetime's 29 new dramas made it to season two.

Those batting averages have remained pretty consistent. Last season, seven out of 13 reality series made the grade. Just 10 out of 28 comedies cut it, while eight of 20 dramas were brought back.

"With reality programming, you have an unbelievable chance of hitting it out of the park," says CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem. "Even a lesser heralded show will still deliver a solid number."

Producers and network executives note that reality series have a lot going for them, and not just cheaper production costs (always a plus):

= Viewers frequently find reality series much more accessible, given their easy-to-digest concepts (People stranded on an island! Singers clawing their way to victory!) and short episodic orders.

"People know this is a short-term investment and they'll get their story in nine or 13 episodes," Wong says. "That is the length of their commitment."

Viewers also have an easier time finding new reality shows in their summer and midseason berths.

= Because reality shows normally eschew a pilot and instead go straight to series, networks usually have a series' entire run in the can before it even debuts. That gives the webs more incentive to keep a show on the air, giving it a longer shot at developing a following.

"Networks are very quick to pull the plug on an ongoing production of a sitcom or drama because it costs a fortune to keep going and you can save a lot of money by stopping early," says Stone Stanley Entertainment partner David Stanley.

"With reality, stopping them doesn't make economic sense. You might as well keep them on, and sometimes you stay with a marginal show that then will catch on and work."

= With fewer available slots for reality shows, network execs are able to program the cream of the crop.

"We'll pick our best stuff," ABC's Wong says.

And it helps that many of the shows are already-proven formats imported from overseas.

"Most of these shows are fairly flushed out, they're known concepts," LMNO's Schotz says.

= Reality shows never truly die. Shows that had been sent to retirement can be recalled to active duty with minimal effort.

Just ask Vin DiBona Prods., which revives "America's Funniest Home Videos" for ABC every few years. Or Stone Stanley, which recently got another shot at "The Mole" in the guise of "Celebrity Mole Hawaii."

Schotz's LMNO, meanwhile, brought back "Boot Camp" in the form of "Celebrity Boot Camp." And CBS didn't give up on "Big Brother" despite a tepid season one. Now the show is a summer staple for the network.

And after 12 years, MTV's "The Real World" still hasn't run out of juice.

= Plain and simple, reality has struck a strong chord with young viewers -- particularly adults 18-34 -- who grew up on "Real World" and have a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things non-scripted.

"People relate to it in an unusual manner, while you just don't relate to a drama right away," Schotz says.

But despite reality's rate of success, the genre is still trying to shake its down-market image.

After all, for most of the 1990s, until "Millionaire" and "Survivor" came along, reality was dominated by "When Animals Attack" and "Wildest Police Videos" style shows. Advertisers have come around on Nielsen smashes like "American Idol," but the network sales staffs would still prefer that their entertainment divisions chase more scripted product.

"There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that advertisers would rather be in a scripted show," Wong says. "But they can't deny the enormous reach of these reality shows."

Reality TV is also heading toward a crossroads this spring as it tries to keep the batting average crown even as the genre saturates primetime.

ABC, for example, has a whole lineup of rotating non-fiction franchises in the works for Wednesdays and Thursdays, with shows such as "Are You Hot?" and "The Will" on deck. Other upcoming projects include the WB's "Surreal Life," UPN's "Supermodel," CBS' "Star Search" update and Fox's "Joe Millionaire."

With so many new shows in the works, it's inevitable that some of those entries will soon find themselves in the vast network graveyard -- alongside failed comedies and dramas.

When that happens, reality may segue from phenom status and share the scripted world's tremendous odds against success.

"The world will change, and the dependency on reality will change," CBS' Tellem says.