'Reality' TV Loses Luster with U.S. Networks

27 minutes ago
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - There's a new reality for network television: good, old-fashioned fiction is back in style.

Responding to advertisers' newfound aversion to unscripted programming, the networks are going back to basics with a fall slate of new and returning shows heavy on traditional sitcoms and dramas and decidedly light on the "reality" genre.

The resurgence of scripted series is good news for Hollywood writers and actors. But viewers won't be bidding a final farewell just yet to insect-eating, hard-bodied contestants vying for cash, instant fame and desirable mates.

The Big Four broadcasters are bringing back a handful of blue-chip reality hits this fall -- CBS's "Survivor," ABC's "The Bachelor," NBC's "Fear Factor," and "Joe Millionaire" on Fox. NBC even plans to launch a new one, "The Apprentice," featuring real estate mogul Donald Trump, later in the season.

Likewise, Fox has a fresh reality offering planned for mid-season, the interactive entertainment show "Banzai."

Not surprisingly, Fox, whose ratings fortunes were transformed from dismal to dazzling thanks largely to "Joe Millionaire" and "American Idol," is devoting the largest share of its fall lineup to unscripted series, four hours in all, including the return of "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted."

Reality TV also will remain alive and well this summer, as broadcasters opt for cheap, original programming to "keep the lights on" during a period once given over entirely to reruns. The idea is to stem further viewer defections to cable TV.

Indeed, NBC is planning to air at least 10 unscripted programs this summer, using the warm-weather schedule as an incubator for potential reality hits, hoping one or two could spark high enough ratings to return for the regular TV season.

That strategy worked like a charm for some of TV's greatest unscripted success stories, starting with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor."

Of course, summertime shows are not the only breeding ground for fall and winter shows. Any number of concepts pumped into development in recent months -- the "Real Beverly Hillbillies" for example -- could tempt networks scrambling at mid-season for a quick fix to replace a scripted flop.

But broadcast executives well know that staged reality shows can cut both ways.

REALITY BACKLASH

The recent backlash against prime time's flood of contest and courtship shows was triggered in part by a reality binge that backfired at ABC. Encouraged by the instant popularity of "The Bachelor" this season, the Walt Disney Co.-owned network pressed its luck with a string of reality misfires like "Are You Hot?" and "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!"

Some media buyers complained about not getting what they paid for when purchasing advertising time in advance during last year's "upfront" sales market. "What we bought in the upfront is not what we ended up with, Peggy Green, president of national broadcast for Zenith Media, said at a conference of advertisers earlier this month.

"If that is what happens this year, the upfront may have to be revisited."

A chastened ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun told reporters last week that he had learned his lesson, and he outlined a more moderate future role for reality.

"Having a reality-laden network is not great business," Braun said.

Aside from the issue of ratings, some advertisers have simply been uneasy about associating their products with the mix of sex and voyeurism that fuels much of the reality genre.

"Anything that ends up in a hot tub, you don't want to be around," media buyer Tom DeCabia recently told the Los Angeles Times. "Reality is not something that a lot of advertisers are beating down the door to get into."