Fact is, reality's here to stay!
Reprinted from the CONTRA COSTA TIMES
By Chuck Barney
There are several reasons why the remarkable power of reality TV deserves the boldest headlines of the just-concluded broadcast television season.
"Joe Millionaire" was a surprise mega-hit. "American Idol" generated robust ratings. "Survivor," "The Bachelor" and "Fear Factor" all continued to lure sizable audiences.
So why, then, are there no new reality series on the networks' schedules for next fall? The answer, as usual, has something to do with money.
Of the 38 new shows touted by programming bigwigs last week in new York, 21 are comedies and 17 are dramas. Not a one is a staged reality show. That means, when the fall season unfolds in September, the hours assigned to reality programming will barely exceed 10 percent of the overall schedule. This comes after some recent stretches in which the genre accounted for nearly a quarter of prime-time real estate.
But don't think for a moment that network execs have experienced a sudden morality-fueled epiphany. They're not backing away from the genre because they're embarrassed by it or because they believe the crass and/or exploitative tendencies of some reality shows have no place on America's airwaves.
Their retreat can be pegged to a couple of key factors: Reality TV never will be the syndication gold mine that scripted series are, and blue-chip advertisers are often uncomfortable with being associated with the genre. Did I mention it had something to do with money?
"Ultimately, having a heavily reality-laden network is not great business," ABC Television Entertainment Group chairman Lloyd Braun said last week. "We don't feel it's the way to establish long-term stability and growth."
Braun should know. After getting caught up in the intoxicating Nielsen euphoria of "The Bachelor" and its offspring, "The Bachelorette," his struggling network overdosed on reality and got burned by it. "All-American Girl" and "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" were among the thunderous flops and "Are You Hot?" never was.
The latter show, essentially a parade of scantily clad hotties, not only languished in the Nielsens, it proved to be a public relations nightmare.
"We will exercise restraint going forward from here," Braun promised. "Many of these shows do not fit our image ... and they're not what our advertisers are looking to buy from us."
NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker expressed similar apprehension over reality TV, even though "Fear Factor" has been a solid Monday-night hit for the hit network.
"I think we know who we are and what we want to be," he said. "When you buy scripted programming, you usually know what you're getting. When you buy reality, you're looking for lightning in the bottle."
Reality programming also doesn't lend itself to repeat viewings (where's the fun in watching the same "Survivor" over and over?) so there's no syndication money in it. That's important because the syndication market remains the best place to build humongous profits in the television business. Thus, the heavy emphasis on comedies and dramas for the fall clearly demonstrates an awareness by the networks that they need more shows with a "Friends" or "CSI" potential to prosper.
Still, don't pull the plug on reality TV just yet. On the same day Zucker announced NBC's fall schedule, he revealed the network had bought from "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett "The Apprentice," a New York-based series in which contestants compete to win a job as a personal aide to Donald Trump (the show probably won't air until 2004, though). NBC also plans to air plenty of reality shows this summer, including "For Love or Money," a new relationship series that begins June 2.
"I think reality TV is here to stay, but I don't think it will be the be-all, end-all craze it was this season," Zucker said. "We believe the best place for it is in the summer. That allows us to keep the lights on and use it to promote our fall schedule."
Viewers and critics who have had their fill of reality TV may find the fall schedules to be a heartwarming sight, but it might be wise to keep any sense of optimism in check. After all, why celebrate the absence of a reality show if its slot is taken up by yet another lame sitcom or two? I've yet to see any of the new scripted series, but judging from the premises, they predominantly appear to be generic and/or unoriginal.
Moreover, all this talk about "restraint" when it comes to reality programming may be nothing more than springtime bluster. Restraint has never been one of the more notable traits of network programmers. Consequently, it's a good bet that as soon as some of these scripted shows start failing -- and many, of course, will -- the broadcasters will be severely tempted to jump back on the reality bandwagon for a quick fix.
"Obviously, it can be a potent weapon when used the right way," Braun admitted. "It can turbo-charge your schedule."