Fear Factor Soars on FX
Its reality is that there is life after network run
By Anne Becker and Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/12/2004 8:00:00 PM
Chugging a shake made from flies and maggots might be a turn-off to some viewers—but FX is proving that gross-out reality series Fear Factor can be a hit even in reruns.
Since the cable network started airing the syndicated hit series last summer, its ratings have skyrocketed, breathing new life into the network and defying conventional wisdom that reality shows don't score well the second time around. (See page 4.)
For years in the syndication market, stations and cable networks dined on a steady diet of broadcast dramas and sitcoms. Now, as more reality shows mature, buyers are trying harder to decipher their value in the marketplace.
Even hit serial-contest reality shows can falter in repeats—after a winner is named and the suspense is broken. Closed-ended shows like Fear Factor, which aren't dependent on a running plot and offer new contestants and stunts in each outing, typically have the best shot in syndication. Fox's Cops, for example, has been a workhorse in broadcast syndication as well as on cable's FX and Court TV, partly because each episode offers a new town and a new team of police officers.
"Fear Factor repeats well because there's a beginning, a middle and an end to each episode," says Sean O'Boyle, senior VP for NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, which sold the show to FX. The visually arresting stunts, he adds, "bring eyeballs back to each episode."
Reliable, repeatable hits like Fear Factor are scarce now and can command premiums. FX bought the show from NBC Universal and Endemol last spring for $250,000 an episode. That's pricey for a reality show but still a bargain compared with the $1 million-plus per episode paid for sitcoms and dramas.
Apart from FX, Fear Factor also begins airing on stations later this month. So far, it's cleared in more than 95% of the country, including Fox's owned-and-operated stations, through all-barter deals, in which the stations turn over ad revenue in return for the show.
If FX's results are a barometer, the stations should expect a strong response. Since late June, the 7 p.m. strip of Fear Factor has averaged nearly 1 million viewers, more than doubling FX's performance in the timeslot last summer. Friday-night marathons are also averaging 1 million viewers, up a whopping 85% from a year ago. And the show, where young, often bikini-clad contestants compete in hair-raising stunts, draws well with the young viewers that every network craves.
The ratings boon came just in time for FX, which has suffered recent syndication stumbles. It dropped big bucks on hit dramas, including Ally McBeal and The Practice, only to see them flop in the ratings. Fear Factor proved a powerhouse for the network. "We saw this as a great flypaper show that would be able to be a lead-in, could play in several time periods and act as a great promo vehicle for many of our originals," says Chuck Saftler, senior vice president of programming, FX Networks. "It is such a great utility player."
A few broadcast networks have replayed original shows in their entirety on sister cable networks. Bravo encored NBC's The Restaurant, CNBC offered a second run of NBC's The Apprentice, and The Bachelor re-aired on ABC Family. So far, Fear Factor is the first in the recent reality craze to draw big numbers in syndication.
Some blue-chip reality shows, including American Idol and Survivor, aren't even available, because their producers aim to keep maximum exposure on the current seasons. A few second-tier shows are selling, but the deals are small: Game Show Network scooped up Average Joe and The Mole for under $20,000 per episode. Two new reality cable networks, Fox Reality Channel and Reality 24-7, plan to buy shows, too, when they launch next year.
Regardless of format, reality has the potential to resell as successfully as sitcoms and dramas, says syndicator Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon Television. He says, "There are things you can bring out in reality that you could never script." Intriguing characters and plots, he says, can draw and redraw crowds.
Many reality producers are hoping Fear Factor tests well in the syndication waters. "The ultimate home run is getting your show into syndication," says Endemol USA President David Goldberg. Endemol is eyeing another of its closed-ended shows, ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, as its next syndicated hit. The show performs well in reruns, and Endemol has already amassed about 30 episodes. (A show typically needs 100 episodes for syndication.)
If reality shows prove to be duds in the broadcast syndication market, there's always a home on niche and startup cable networks. "The Restaurant could work on the Food Network," says Ben Silverman, who produced the two-season NBC show as head of Reveille, a production division of NBC Universal Television.
For now, reality producers are concentrating on a show's first network run. Says Goldberg, "Our focus has to be coming up with good, producible ideas—not good, producible ideas that can make it into syndication."
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