TV Networks Struggle to Get Grip on Reality

2 hours, 37 minutes ago
By Josef Adalian

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker recently called the about-to-wrap February "sweeps" -- marked by record ratings for a slew of unscripted series and a seemingly endless parade of Michael Jackson specials -- the "most ridiculous" ratings survey ever.

Maybe so, but to other industry observers, Zucker's comment reflected the frustrated cry of a network executive coming to grips with the notion that so-called "reality" shows are not the passing fad many thought them to be less than a year ago.

Indeed, just last month, Zucker told a group of TV critics that reality "has its place on NBC ... in the summer." Within a few weeks, Zucker -- like network suits all over town -- was tearing up his prime-time schedule to make room for new unscripted concepts.

The genre once derided as "ratings crack" has now emerged as a basic staple of the network diet, right up there with traditional sitcoms and dramas.

Consider: During the final full week of the February sweeps (Feb. 17-23) barely 35 percent of the programming aired by the Big Four broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) consisted of original scripted series. In addition to news magazines, movies and seven full hours of Jacko-related programs, the networks ran a whopping 22.5 hours of reality fare, compared with 19 hours of dramas and just 5 1/2 hours of comedies.

Networks that skimp on reality are paying a price, in ratings if not ad dollars. NBC, for example, saw worst-ever ratings for "The West Wing" and "Ed" last week, while even "Friends" had its lowest young adults tally in nearly two years opposite unscripted competition.

COMEDIES LOSE TO REALITY

Even networks serving up a heavy dose of reality are suffering opposite others' reality juggernauts. ABC's Tuesday and Wednesday comedies, which had some Nielsen momentum in the fall, have taken a hit opposite Fox's "American Idol."

"The wild success of some of these reality shows is definitely impacting the overall prime-time schedule," said ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne. "They're depressing numbers for scripted shows in the time periods they air."

As agents fret over the possibility of fewer scripted shows on the networks' lineups next fall, and writers and actors worry about whether they'll even have a job in a few months, network executives are unapologetic. They say the reality glut is simply a case of broadcasters giving viewers what they want.

"There's a huge dichotomy between what the industry is harping on vs. what the public wants," said ABC Entertainment executive vice president Jeff Bader. "Is four hours of 'American Idol' (each week) too much? Not if that's what the audience wants."

Of course, back in 1999 and early 2000, what the audience wanted was ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The quiz show was so red-hot, the network at one point was airing it four times per week -- until viewers just as quickly lost interest, leaving ABC in an even weaker position than it was before the show bowed.

NO 'MILLIONAIRE' LESSONS

Bader doesn't buy the "Millionaire" parallels, arguing "that was one show," while the new wave of unscripted fare consists of dozens of ever-changing concepts.

Network execs, including those at ABC, insist they've learned the lessons of "Millionaire." As crazy as the February sweeps has been, they realize that unscripted shows have to be balanced with scripted hits.

"Reality should be a part of your schedule, and each network will end up with its own mix like it was with news magazines (when they were exploding)," said CBS chieftain Leslie Moonves. "But you have to have the foundation before you can have the icing on the cake."

That's the attitude execs have taken over at Fox, which has had extraordinary success this winter using reality shows to boost the overall network.

After finishing fourth in the November sweeps, Fox chief Sandy Grushow and entertainment head Gail Berman charged scheduling guru Preston Beckman with constructing a midseason lineup that would use returning reality smash "American Idol" and unscripted hopeful "Joe Millionaire" to put some heat behind Fox's scripted shows.

FOX'S 'IDOL' PLAN

Thus, "Idol" became the lead-in for sophomore series "24" and "Bernie Mac," which were only doing OK in the ratings despite critical raves. In addition, Fox decided to use the promo platform of "Idol" to help jump-start sitcom stalwart "That '70s Show" in a new Wednesday timeslot.

The result: All three scripted shows are way up in the ratings, while another Fox veteran, "The Simpsons," is having its best season in five years.

And in one of the most stunning turnarounds in network history, Fox is poised to go from fourth to first place in the race for young adult viewers in the space of two months.

"If you use (reality) properly, it infuses energy into the entire network," Grushow said. "It's ultimately about balance, about launching new successful unscripted shows and using (them) as platforms to build existing scripted shows and launch new scripted shows. That's why we've been as successful as we have been."

Even competitors acknowledge Fox's strategy has been a success.

"Fox has clearly benefited (from reality); they've used it smartly," Moonves said.

What's more, Fox isn't skimping on concepts for new scripted shows (as ABC did during the peak of "Millionaire" mania.)

DEVELOPMENT INVESTMENT

"We're spending more on development than at any time since I've been here," Berman said. The number of pilots being greenlit by other networks also seems to be on a par with recent years, if not a bit higher.

"The networks did learn their lesson from ABC's folly, but they're still being arrogant about reality because networks are always arrogant," said one industry veteran.

Indeed, the fact that the networks are still developing scripted shows doesn't mean they'll actually put them on the air. If unscripted fare continues to be strong through the spring, there'll be plenty of pressure on broadcast execs to add new unscripted slots to their fall schedules.

"All bets are off in May (when the new schedules are unveiled), " said one studio chief. "The networks may lose their courage and do a lot of scheduling of unscripted (shows)."

That'll certainly be the case this summer, when a tsunami of new and returning unscripted series is expected to devour prime time.

"This summer is going to be just crazy," said Zucker, who could end up rolling out as many as 10 different unscripted shows on NBC between now and Labor Day.

ABC REALITY PLANS

ABC is likely to bow a half-dozen reality shows during the summer, mostly on Wednesday and Thursday nights, while Fox has already greenlit "Temptation Island 3" and the pop star makeover series "Second Chance" for the warm-weather months. CBS last week gave the go-ahead to "Big Brother 4," while the Simon Cowell-created "Cupid" is also on track for summer.

"Summer used to be a quite time (to launch new reality shows), but not anymore," said ABC alternative head Andrea Wong. "It's harder to launch these shows now. ... there's a lot of noise."

Grushow said the June-September frame promises to be "the most competitive summer ever."

"The marketplace will definitely be oversaturated with unscripted shows and the prize will go to those shows that are based on great ideas and great execution, (as well as) one's ability to sell them through."

But while some worry the coming summer flood could kill the unscripted genre, Grushow and others believe the rise in original summer programming is a good thing.

"It's great for network television," Grushow said. "At the end of the day, if a whole lot more people watch network TV this summer as opposed to fleeing to cable, then broadcasters have helped themselves enormously."

REALITY DOESN'T AD UP

Still, some observers worry about the financial impact on the nets if the unscripted mania continues unchecked next fall.

Even though shows like "Idol," "Bachelorette" and "Joe Millionaire" are generating huge windfalls for nets, advertisers still treat many reality shows as second-class citizens.

ABC may be doubling its ratings on Thursdays with "Are You Hot?" but the network doesn't seem to be luring many A-list advertisers to the show. Last week's episode had a couple of movie spots, but was otherwise filled with ads for such C-level products as Rent-A-Center and the Hair Club for Men, as well as an unusually large number of public service announcements and promos.

NO GUARANTEES

There's also evidence that viewers won't simply watch any reality show a network throws at them.

ABC's 15-night "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" has boosted some weak spots in ABC's lineup, but the numbers are far from stellar -- and have been drifting downward. CBS's second cycle of "Star Search" is also doing only OK numbers after a strong first season.

"You can have as much unscripted programming as you have compelling ideas and execution," said one industry vet. "But these shows are going to be held to a higher standard as the novelty wears off."

Even though he's been forced to fill some holes with reality -- goodbye, "Just Shoot Me," hello "Let's Make a Deal" -- NBC's Zucker believes scripted programming must remain the heart of any major networks' schedule. In his mind, the more other networks rely on reality, the better off NBC's bottom line will be.

"However terrifically you can sell shows like 'American Idol,' there's still a huge premium advertisers attach to scripted series," he said. "The more and more unscripted series you have, the bigger that premium for scripted (programming) becomes. Reality programming is going to be a part of peoples' schedules for a long time, but scripted shows will always be the core."

Or, as one network exec puts it, "You can help your ratings with reality but it's no way to run a business."

SCRIPTED SHOWS STRUGGLE

Unfortunately, this season has been a disaster for scripted shows, with only two new legitimate drama hits ("CSI: Miami" and "Without a Trace") and only one modest comedy success ("8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter") .

Some observers say a "crisis mentality" is starting to set in among writers and development execs, though most believe that's an overstatement. The trick for network programmers and studio developers now is coming up with scripted shows that can capture the attention of the public and the press as effectively as reality concepts like "Joe Millionaire."

"It's like ('American Idol' judge) Simon Cowell says: We have to raise our game," said 20th Century Fox TV president Gary Newman. "We've got to do an ever better job creating and programming than we've been trying to do.

"People still want to sit down at night and watch their stories; shows like 'Friends' and 'CSI' and 'The Simpsons' prove that."