Most Success Stories Don't Follow a Script
Despite the occasional Monk, reality shows drive cable nets' ratings
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/26/2003 7:00:00 PM
Two executives from Banyan Productions, producer of Trading Spaces, got the inspiration for the syndicated Ambush Makovers on their way to lunch when they saw a shoddily dressed man on the street. "We wrote the show that afternoon," recalls President Ray Murray.
In Atlanta, Turner Broadcasting System is about to hold "The Pitch," a company-wide competition in which employees from all parts of the company can present their ideas for a reality show to judges including TNT and TBS COO Steve Koonin and Turner Entertainment chief Mark Lazarus. "Who's to say I can't get an idea from an employee?" says Koonin.
Almost all cable executives and producers agree: Ideas can come from anywhere. Cable networks get a lot of attention for original dramas like Monk and Nip/Tuck. But non-scripted shows rank among their most-watched series and drive their channels' ratings. The obvious stars are TLC's Trading Spaces, Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and whatever the latest hit is on MTV.
On a smaller scale, there are plenty of contributors to cable successes. TLC's arsenal includes What Not To Wear and While You Were Out. Non-scripted shows like Forensic Files on Court TV or House Hunters on HGTV can easily draw more than 1 million viewers.
What's working particularly well, says media buyer John Rash, senior vice president of ad agency Campbell Mithun, are "shows that give viewers a look into people's lives, habits and homes in a non-competitive environment."
It seems everyone is looking for the next Trading Spaces. The roster of new home shows is dizzying, from redecorating competitions like USA Network's House Wars and TBS's House Rules; to home transformations like Merge on Lifetime, Mix It Up on WE: Women's Entertainment and Knock First on ABC Family.
But do they suffer from me-too–ism? Although Trading Spaces still lights up Nielsen ratings, none of the new shows has reached a 1.0, and, in most cases, ratings are below their nets' prime time averages.
"The one that is there first puts the stake in the ground," observes Laura Caraccioli Davis, vice president of Starcom Media Entertainment. "The rest are 'me toos' unless there is an interesting hook or angle."
The casting, marketing and scheduling are critical elements, says Discovery Networks U.S. President Billy Campbell. "But it is also really important to get there first."
There is a limited number of reality formats—game shows, makeover shows, dating shows, fly-on-the-wall hidden-camera shows cover most of the genres—so finding a fresh idea is challenging.
The key, cable executives say, is to find a new twist. That's what made Queer Eye stand out.
"Makeover shows are certainly nothing new," says Bravo President Jeff Gaspin, "but this one found a hook that was as different as Joe Millionaire was to The Bachelor."
Similarly, Spike TV reality spoof The Joe Schmo Show took a popular format—putting strangers in a house to compete for a prize—and mixed up the ingredients. On Schmo, everyone but one unsuspecting "housemate" is in on the joke that the show is fake.
Another reason Queer Eye and Joe Schmo are among the standouts, notes MTV President of Entertainment Brian Graden, is that they are "one-liners," shows that can be easily explained in one sentence. "You get it instantly. You have it at 'hello.' You want to be there." MTV is famous for producing hit "one-liners" from Jackass to Punk'd to Newlyweds. It is one reason that numerous cable programmers—among them A&E programming chief Bob DeBitetto and TNT/TBS's Koonin—say they watch MTV to find ideas and inspiration.
And MTV's Graden finds himself watching Fox News Channel. "It is produced as great entertainment teleivision," he observes.
As more cable nets—and broadcasters, too—play in the reality space, competition for show ideas and producers is increasingly fierce.
"The money is there to make and promote a show. It just has to be the perfect idea," says Elizabeth Porter, senior vice president of alternative programming, USA Network. She's willing to spend more because USA wants only about two reality shows a year.
Some channels are so hungry for reality fare that they'll pay above-market fees. Where Trading Spaces runs under $100,000 per show, newer home-decorating shows run more than double that. Several programmers say they would be willing to spend up to $700,000 per episode for a high-quality show.
"It is a little like the Gold Rush," says Discovery's Campbell. "The minute people see success, they start to ask for higher rates."
Cable nets have upped the entertainment value. HGTV, for one, aims to mix its information and entertainment more deliberately. On its Date With Design, where a young single woman chooses among three suitors and makes over his apartment, the how-to is as important as whom she picks. Says Senior Vice President of Programming Michael Dingley, if HGTV strays too far from its informational style, the network "can lose unintentionally" by confusing its audience.
The surest measure of a hit reality show is ratings. Also telling is advertiser support and possibilities for sponsorships and product placement. Under new ad-sales chief Joe Abruzzese, Discovery Networks has signed up several big companies, such as Home Depot and Hasbro. Home Depot also sponsors USA's House Wars, and Lowe's is behind TBS's House Rules.
On the other hand, Scripps Networks, parent of Food Network, HGTV and Fine Living, avoids product placements, contending that they would color the shows' credibility. Doing so, though, eliminates a profitable revenue stream.
So far, product-heavy Queer Eye has avoided exclusive partnerships. Instead, stores and companies trade free goods for exposure. But that could change, according to network chief Gaspin, and Queer Eye will likely get one or two sponsors. "There are way to monetize your success," he says. "We are in business after all."
Reality shows can pull in younger viewers, a demo that appeals to many advertisers. To that end, Court TV is adding reality shows that are "a little faster, a little hipper," says Chairman Henry Schleiff, though not at the expense of the network's investigative themes. As a result, new reality fare like Impossible Heist and Extreme Evidence mixes game play and crime solving.
Even with a hit, a network can't relax. The Osbournes, for example, swelled to about 6 million viewers at its peak. In season two, though, half the audience fled. MTV perennial hit The Real World, however, keeps chugging along by changing its characters, storylines and location each season.
Networks are finding ways to keep their shows going. With Trading Spaces, TLC employs a slew of tactics: spinoffs, stunts and clever scheduling.
"I am not going to make the classic programmer's mistake, laying back in my chair saying, 'I have Trading Spaces,'" says TLC General Manager Roger Marmet. "We will continue to evolve."
When USA Network's Nashville Star, the American Idol-like country-music competition, returns for season two in March, the network will have a new owner, assuming the NBC/Vivendi deal goes through. For Nashville Star, which earned a decent 2.0 last spring, that could mean access to NBC's promotional and ad-sales machine and perhaps repurposing like Queer Eye.
At Bravo, executives are plotting, too. A Queer Eye spin-off is possible. Gaspin says he would love a few episodes on which women are made over.
As the former programming chief at VH1, though, he knows how important it is to build new franchises. He was there when Behind the Music hit big and later fell off a cliff. "You don't want a show to take over your channel," says Gaspin. "You want the Bravo brand to exist beyond Queer Eye."
FX: Law & Order
LawThat's Tough To Break
Law & Order is certainly nothing new to cable—A&E starting airing off-nets in 1994—but, since joining TNT's schedule in 2001, it has become a Goliath.
On TNT, the Dick Wolf drama can effortlessly pull in 3 million viewers for a prime time airing, about double A&E's old average. In the middle of the afternoon, a Law & Order episode on TNT can attract more than 1 million, a crowd many cable nets would kill for in prime.
Two years ago, TNT aced out A&E for the second cycle of Law & Order off-nets. Since then, A&E has been desperately trying to replace the show, acquiring Third Watch and, more recently, CSI: Miami.
TNT's success is due in large part to scheduling and promotion. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Law & Order episodes are stacked in prime ("The best lead-in for Law & Order is Law & Order," says network chief Steve Koonin"), and the drama is also stripped at 7 p.m. TNT promotes the show heavily during its other key properties, such as National Basketball Association games and Hollywood theatricals.
Law & Order is also one of the best bargains on cable. TNT pays about $700,000 per episode for recent seasons and $250,000 per episode for older shows that already aired on A&E. Most other big-name dramas, from CSI to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, sell for more than $1 million per episode, and a well-done original drama runs even more. —Allison Romano
MTV: Nick & Jessica
Everyone Loves Lovers
After The Osbournes, MTV Entertainment President Brian Graden wasn't looking for another celebrity sitcom. With Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, which features recently married pop stars Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, he says, "we were going down the path of romance."
Instead, "we found comedy." And another real-life comedy was born.
Viewers have been coming in droves—more than 3 million per episode for recent plays—to watch Lachey and Simpson struggle with domesticity and to catch one of Simpson's ditzy one-liners. (Her confusion over whether Chicken of the Sea tuna fish was tuna or chicken even found its way into a recent Saturday Night Live skit.)
The couple has signed on to make a second season, returning with new episodes in January. Until then, the MTV programming machine is churning out plenty more reality fare. Up next is Rich Girls, starring two wealthy New York teenage girls, debuting Oct. 28 and already creating buzz. Also that day, That '70s Show star Ashton Kutcher returns with a second season of his celebrity prank show Punk'd. —Allison Romano
Bravo: Queer eye for the straight guy
Who would have predicted the biggest reality phenomenon of last summer would come from artsy Bravo? Despite a reality onslaught on broadcast, it was Bravo's gay-themed makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that emerged as the toast of the summer.
"It was one of those shows where all the moons aligned," says Bravo chief Jeff Gaspin.
Of course, the show was already in development when NBC acquired Bravo last December. But NBC and Gaspin, also NBC's EVP of alternative series, took the "make-better" series and did just that: made it better. They lavished more money on the production and unleashed NBC's marketing and promotional machine. The results: More than 3 million viewers tuned in for several Bravo episodes, a sizable audience for any cable network. NBC replayed several episodes over the summer on the broadcast network and, more recently, parachuted Queer Eye in to rescue its faltering Friday-night lineup.
Bravo and Scout Productions—now a hot reality producer that also makes Trading Spaces clone Knock First for ABC Family—will soon get to work on another batch of episodes. (In a nod to the success, the five lifestyle experts are expected to get a healthy increase over the $3,000 per show they were paid for season one, but the show's Fab Five have not yet been re-signed.) —Allison Romano
Disney: That's so Raven
That's So Disney Channel
Lizzie McGuire is the tween show that put Disney Channel on the map, but That's So Raven, Disney's second live-action show, is poised to be even bigger.
Raven, starring the actress of that name, who got her start as young Olivia on The Cosby Show, draws ratings that rival hugely popular Lizzie's. Like Lizzie star Hilary Duff, she has a movie and record deal with Disney. But unlike Lizzie, which has just a few precious fresh episodes remaining, Raven isn't going away anytime soon.
After The Lizzie McGuire Movie raked in $42 million last spring, Disney couldn't reach a deal with Duff to continue the show. Faced with losing its franchise, another network would seem vulnerable, but Disney already had Raven on the air.
"If you get a definitional show, people ask, 'What do you do next?,'" Disney Channel President of Entertainment Rich Ross said recently. "We say we're going to do it again."
And they have. Raven's January 2003 debut was among Disney's highest-rated premieres. More recently, the show typically attracts more than 2 million viewers, and it also runs on ABC's Saturday-morning block. A second season is already in the works.
Disney isn't letting up either. Come next year, the network will add live-action Phil of the Future, with a boy lead character. —Allison Romano
Definitely Not Reality
FX has clearly received a nice lift from its newest original Nip/Tuck. The drama, which centers on two hunky Miami plastic surgeons—one a cad, the other a little less obnoxious—wrapped up its freshman season Oct. 21 with 3 million viewers.
The first season averaged an impressive 3.0 household rating and 3.3 million viewers, on par with FX's Emmy-winning cop drama The Shield. And its marks are better than other new cable dramas this year, such as USA's Peacemakers and Lifetime's Wild Card.
Nip/Tuck started out strong this summer, and, when the fall season kicked off, FX execs crossed their fingers that it wouldn't sag. But ratings held. Getting plugs on sister network Fox during the Major League Baseball playoffs and Fox's NFL action certainly hasn't hurt.
Now that it has two hits, general-entertainment network FX is "emerging as its own entity," notes Kris Magel, manager of national broadcast for Optimedia International.
Nip/Tuck goes back into production this winter on 15 new episodes (an unusual order pattern since most broadcast networks order at least 22 episodes and cable nets typically buy 13). Nip/Tuck will attempt to slice the competition again beginning next June. —Allison Romano
TLC: Trading Spaces
Lots of Spaces To Grow
Usually, television stunts are bad attempts to wring the last ounce of juice from a former hit. But every time TLC's Trading Spaces tries a gimmick, the show grows to new levels of popularity. Whether it was the Dixie Chicks celebrity special or NBC's Today show hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer redoing each other's dressing rooms, curious new viewers check out the show—and many of them stay.
The latest stunt, Trading Space$: 100 Grand on Oct. 5, took the show to new heights. Nine million viewers tuned in for the special, which upped the remodeling budget to $50,000 per couple instead of the usual $1,000.
"The show has not peaked yet," says TLC GM Roger Marmet.
In its usual Saturday-night slot, Trading Spaces routinely attracts 3 million viewers.
To keep up the buzz, the blueprints are being prepared for future stunts. For "British Invasion," designers from the UK version, Changing Rooms, will come over to America. In March, a special nine-episode miniseries Trading Spaces: Home Free will challenge couples to decorate and win a Florida dream house. —Allison Romano
ESPN: Sunday Night Football
For nine months a year, TBS, TNT and Lifetime jostle each other for the No. 1 slot in the prime time cable Nielsens. When fall comes, though, they know they're going to get blown out by ESPN, because that's the time for football.
National Football League games are consistently the biggest draw in cable, regularly scoring an 8 or 9 household rating for ESPN's Sunday-night game. Ratings are flat this season, but that's better than the performance of the broadcast networks. When there's no game to air, lots of ESPN's other prime time programming scores ratings of 0.2 to 0.6. So that one hot night can mean the difference, for example, between the 2.3 ESPN logged three weeks ago and the 1.2 recorded during the following week when it didn't have a game. That's why, when asked what his favorite team is, ESPN Senior Vice President of Programming John Wildhack responded, "I like whoever is giving us the best possible schedule." —John M. Higgins
Nick: The Fairly OddParents
A Quiet Standout
Of course, Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants gets more headlines, but The Fairly OddParents has quietly become the kids net's second-best show. The cartoon—featuring a precocious young boy, Timmy, and his fairy godparents, Cosmo and Wanda—is a standout for Nick anywhere it runs in daytime or prime. Saturday-morning plays routinely draw more than 3 million viewers, and prime time episodes don't lag too far behind.
The brainchild of animator Butch Hartman, Fairly OddParents started out as an animated short. The series launched in March 2001 and made its move to prime time strip last August. It is produced by Nick's in-house production arm; Hartman serves as executive producer.
Like any good Nick show, The Fairly OddParents got its own TV movie last July, and it hit big. The flick, Abra-Catastophe, attracted 4.5 million viewers, a strong tally for any cable movie, adult or kids. And, among kids 2-11, it scored 2.7 million viewers. —Allison Romano
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