Tom Jicha: The reality is, reality TV is fading
By Tom Jicha
November 4, 2004
America's long national nightmare with reality TV appears to be coming to an end.
Every one of the new reality series introduced this summer and fall has either failed or is failing. At the same time, several scripted dramas have broken out of the early season clutter to establish themselves as long-term keepers, a development that usually is a harbinger of more of the same.
One of these shows, "Desperate Housewives," is achieving what pessimists said is no longer possible in the fragmented TV universe. The ABC rookie has emerged as a buzz show, which, in less than a month, has come from nowhere to become a Top 5 series and pop-culture reference.
These contrasting developments could signal a shift in audience tastes, especially since some of the recent reality attempts have been ignominious failures.
Fox's "The Next Great Champ," a knockoff of a concept previously announced by NBC, went down like Mike Tyson's bottom line. The public's decision was so one-sided, Fox felt compelled to yank it off the broadcast network and relegate it to the cable Fox Sports Network. The quick knockout also clouds the future of NBC's "The Contender," whose opening bell was supposed to sound in November but has been put off until at least January.
"The Last Comic Standing" was only a week from crowning a winner when it fell. NBC wasn't amused by plunging ratings and pulled it off the air. The finale wound up on Comedy Central, which isn't even one of NBC's sister cable stations.
"The Benefactor," ABC's answer to "The Apprentice," was handled like a junk bond. The slumping series built around billionaire Mark Cuban was pre-empted for a special on the death of Christopher Reeve. ABC decided this was such a beneficial move for the network, it lopped another week off the end of "The Benefactor." An original eight-week run has been reduced to six weeks.
Prime-time exposure on NBC appears to be a thing of the past for the Fab Five of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," who, in about their 14th minute of fame, have been relegated back to low-viewership Bravo.
"The Surreal Life" couldn't even endure on the WB and now is hanging on for life on VH1.
Even where the news isn't so devastating for reality shows, it's not good. "The Apprentice," a Top 5 program last season, has fallen out of the Top 10 and is down an average of about 3 million homes a week. "The Bachelor" also is off almost 3 million homes. "Fear Factor" has lost more than 1.5 million households.
The only series of the genre not to go substantially south is "Survivor," which is down about a half-million homes, but it no longer has to face off against "Friends" on Thursdays.
This isn't to say reality is about to disappear entirely. Network TV has always had room for a few such programs, although people didn't hang this label on series such as "Real People" and "That's Incredible."
Moreover, reality represents quick and relatively inexpensive fixes for under-achieving lineups. However, the reality madness that has taken control of prime time appears to be in its waning moments.