It's been a fun ride for the networks, but how well will they survive the perilous drop? Reality roller coaster
Plain Dealer Television Critic
The story of this television season is etched in reality. The biggest stars to emerge from the last seven months are known by names such as Joe Millionaire and the Bachelor.
So this will go down as the season when network executives decided to see how far the reality roller coaster would take them. And if you're just looking at the ratings, the controversial programming form seems to have taken them on a thrill ride that has reached dizzying heights.
With only about six weeks left in the season, five of prime-time's top-10 programs are reality shows: Fox's "Joe Millionaire" at No. 3, "Survivor: Amazon" and "Survivor: Thailand" in fifth and seventh place for CBS, the Tuesday edition of Fox's "American Idol" at No. 6 and the Wednesday edition at No. 10.
There's no question that the networks, particularly Fox and CBS, are enjoying the ride. But are they about to hit a financial reality wall?
There's no question that reality programming works in terms of grabbing big numbers and the young audience advertisers most cherish.
Still, television actually makes very little of its money from the first airing of a program. The real profit is at what's known as the back end. The money starts to pile up from prime-time reruns, syndication (packages of repeats sold to local stations), cable deals, home-video sales, foreign distribution and merchandising.
Once is enough
Reality TV is a short-term ratings fix that may cause long-term headaches for the industry, because reality TV offers few possibilities for back-end profits. Viewers watch an episode of "Survivor" or "Joe Millionaire" once, and that's it.
You don't get much of an audience for reruns, and there's almost no money to be made from syndication deals, home-video sales, foreign distribution or merchandising (although an "American Idol" or a "Survivor" will inspire some products). There's not much back end there, and that's reality for you.
An episode of "Joe Millionaire," despite the high-rolling name, ultimately will make pennies compared to an episode of, say, NBC's "Friends." And if you have a "Friends" on your schedule, you can count on it week after week, season after season. How many times can you go around the "Joe Millionaire" block?
"I don't think the economics for reality television, once you really dig through the numbers, are that advantageous," says Jordan Levin, the WB's entertainment president. "You oftentimes can't repeat the programming. . . . Where the rubber hits the road is not the perception that we have these ratings, and, hey, we're No. 1, but it's ultimately how do you run your business day in and day out."
The intelligence factor
Any more problems? You betcha. The term "quality TV" rarely is viewed as synonymous with reality TV, and the cynical, manipulative nature of these programs is driving more and more viewers to the world of basic cable.
Remember, basic cable passed the networks in total viewers this season. With acclaimed shows such as FX's "The Shield" and USA Network's "Monk," the impression is growing that basic cable is more and more the place where quality writing has a chance to flourish.
Audience defection is a major problem for the networks, and the rush to reality might be alienating viewers who prize intelligence and innovation. The roller-coaster ride, in other words, may turn out to be a suicide run for broadcast television.
Perhaps you're thinking that, gee, the networks must realize this. Why would they continue along this track, knowing the dangers?
Here comes the biggest reality check of all. Network executives do know the dangers, but they can't help themselves. The lure of the quick ratings fix is just too enticing.
"This reality craze can be like crack for network executives," says Susan Lyne, president of ABC's entertainment division. "You have to be incredibly careful not extend the number of time periods where you're using it."
That quick fix
They are addicted, and they have hardly been careful about how it's being used.
Since Jan. 5, five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the WB) have fielded more than 15 reality series. That's not counting shows that were already on (such as NBC's "Fear Factor") or cable's contributions, which have included such efforts as MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenge," ABC Family's "My Life Is a Sitcom," Sci-Fi Channel's "Scare Tactics" and USA Network's "Nashville Star."
"Everybody is looking for that quick fix," says Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS. "And a lot of times, these shows do give you that."
Lyne is quick to point out that ABC's two most successful reality series, "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," have increased the network's share of the 18-to-34-year-old audience. Still, does that audience stick around for other shows? Are they loyal to ABC, or are they running to the next big reality hit?
This is the very danger cited by Variety and other show-business publications.
The lightning-ratings success of these shows, however, have network executives ordering up reality programming hand over fist.
Comedy was king not that long ago, yet only two situation comedies, "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," are on the top-10 list dominated by reality shows. That will give you some idea how far and how fast the reality genre has climbed. Remember, exactly half of that top-10 list is grounded in reality, so to speak.
With only three spots left in the top 10, you might be thinking that drama can't be doing much better than its comedy cousins against the reality invasion. Still, the drama field has two of the country's four most-watched shows, with "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" at No. 1 and "ER" at No. 4. "Law & Order" holds strong at No. 9.
The real story is that reality is way up, and comedy is way down. ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" are in the No. 14 and No. 15 spots, which means (for those of you keeping score at home) reality also accounts for seven of the season's top-15 shows.
Getting the distorted picture? And if it seems that you're getting blasted with more reality every week, it's because you are.
Can't beat the price
When Lyne says that reality programming has become like crack cocaine for network executives, she's not just talking about the ratings. Compared to dramas and situation comedies, these shows are incredibly cheap to produce - no star salaries, no writers, no directors.
"I completely understand the move on the parts of the other networks to reality," says Jeff Zucker, entertainment president at NBC, the network with the fewest reality shows. "It's a great way to fill holes when your scripted programming fails. I completely understand that. . . . I think that the expectation of the audience and advertisers who watch NBC is a certain kind of quality scripted program."
That's a shot at his rival networks, of course, but Zucker is getting to the heart of yet another long-term problem reality television is creating in Hollywood. The Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild and the studios are watching very nervously as reality programming takes over hour after hour of prime-time television.
"It's the time of reality television," says William Petersen, star of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." "At some point, I think, people get sick of it. I think you will have to go back to stories at some point. It's a cheap way for people to produce television, and it gets huge numbers. . . . It's not very fun for us. We're actors. And we also are friends with actors who don't get paid because these shows are on the air. They can't get jobs. So for us, it's personal on a different level."
It's a common complaint being raised by Tinseltown actors, writers, directors and producers. Reality television, after all, was first pursued by the networks as a hedge against a possible Writers Guild of America strike in 2000.
Network executives didn't want a repeat of 1988, when a writers' strike shut down the industry and delayed the start of the fall season. This time, they wanted strike-proof programming - cheap strike-proof programming.
Although the strike never took place, CBS scored some impressive summer ratings with the first incarnations of "Survivor" and "Big Brother." After some misfires in the genre, many thought reality TV would fade from the scene.
But the continuing top-10 success of "Survivor" and last summer's red-hot ratings for "American Idol" re-energized the fading form. That reality was driven home in January.
"With the amount of reality shows announced, I'm sure this spring and probably next fall, we will have overdone it," says CBS' Moonves. "Hopefully, the cream will rise to the top."
Actors and writers may be getting less work, but Hollywood isn't a town that cares much about actors and writers. The studios, however, are major power players, and every hour of prime time that goes to reality television is an hour not filled by one of the chief suppliers of programming to the networks: Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Fox.
Many see a battle coming when these studios calculate the millions of dollars reality television is taking from their pockets. That will have far more impact than any concern for actors and writers.
There's also the growing realization that viewers aren't showing up for just anything in the reality field. Once you get past "Joe Millionaire," "Survivor," "American Idol," "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," there's a huge drop-off until you hit the next reality show in the ratings.
NBC, late to get into the reality game and still behind, has that show, "Fear Factor," at No. 35. Then there's "Star Search," the CBS revival at No. 36.
Beyond that, the reality track record isn't all that impressive. NBC's "America's Most Talented Kid" and ABC's "Celebrity Mole: Hawaii" don't rank among the country's top-45 shows. ABC's "Are You Hot?" doesn't make the top 75. The third CBS version of "Amazing Race" doesn't make the top 80.
Fox's "Married By America," NBC's "Meet My Folks" and ABC's "All American Girl" don't make the top 100. The WB's "High School Reunion" and "Surreal Life" don't make the top 140.
And one other reason for hope: The networks may finally realize that instant ratings aren't always the best measure of success. While critics often complain that reality television is stupid, some network executives are suggesting it might be a stupid business for them to pursue.
"It is very seductive, there is no doubt," Levin says. "You have to take a step backwards and say, 'OK, it's great, but it's only six episodes or eight episodes,' and they're franchises that can return, but they're not going to allow for the stability that a quality scripted series is going to provide you long term."
The real network survivors will remember that before even more viewers are driven into the welcoming arms of basic cable programmers.
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