Get Ready for a New, Heavy Dose of Reality
Once a fad, unscripted shows have become a schedule staple
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/15/2002 7:00:00 PM
As long as reality shows like Fox's American Idol and ABC's The Bachelor build to finales with astronomical ratings and established franchises like CBS's Survivor keep turning in solid numbers, reality is here to stay.
Is it ever.
Between January and July, the six networks plan to air 22 reality programs, 13 of them new (see page 16). The shows also remain a staple on cable, where FX, USA, ABC Family and Sci Fi Channel plan to launch reality shows in coming months.
"These are water-cooler shows," says Mike Fleiss, executive producer and creator of The Bachelor and founder of Next Entertainment. "The word of mouth is an even more effective way of launching shows than on-air promotions. If the shows are working and people are talking about them, the audience grows really fast."
That was certainly true for The Bachelor, the latest reality show to become a pop-culture phenomenon. The last half-hour of its two-hour finale scored a 29 share in the household Nielsen ratings, up from the 10 share logged at the show's premiere in March.
As a result, ABC plans to air six separate reality shows between now and next summer: The Bachelorette, a celebrity version of The Mole, Are You Hot?, All-American Girl , The Will and The Bachelor 3. The point is to not burn out the audience on any one concept, while keeping fresh programming on the air.
The concepts for reality shows can be so outrageous that producers and publicists practically giggle as they explain them. "Sometimes it's so unbelievable that you can't believe it's real," says Ghen Maynard, vice president of alternative programming for CBS, That's part of the reason the shows also appeal to viewers. But that's not all.
"All the reality shows must have potential for great story and character just like a good drama," says Andrea Wong, senior vice president of alternative series and specials for ABC. "I think those are the two key elements. On top of that, the concept has to be promotable, very clear and provocative to the audience."
Different networks approach the reality genre with different strategies. ABC and CBS seem to have embraced the competition-and-elimination model, along the lines of Survivor, American Idol and The Bachelor: The story unwinds as the weeks go by.
NBC prefers the closed-episode model, such as Fear Factor and Meet My Folks, in which any challenge presented within the show is resolved by the end of an hour.
Because networks don't have to extend a lot of upfront cash to finance reality shows, closed-ended shows present more of a profit opportunity because they're repeatable, says Jeff Zucker, president of entertainment for NBC. "If you can't repeat them, then they aren't that much more financially advantageous than any other show. And you have to be careful that you are not just putting Band-Aids on schedules that don't actually work."
NBC will stray from its model a little next summer—its preferred season for launching reality shows—when it brings two elimination shows, GRB Entertainment's Next Action Star and Jay Mohr's Last Comic Standing, to the network. In one, Americans get to help choose a Sly Stallone/Lucy Liu type; in the other, viewers watch an unknown comedian catapult, presumably, to stardom. Neither is revolutionary: Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, first on radio and then on television, lasted until 1970 and helped discover, among many others, Frank Sinatra and Ann-Margret.
Plot-driven reality shows, such as The Bachelor, also can be re-aired but with more difficulty because a network has to show them in their entirety over several weeks. The Bachelor is getting a second play on ABC Family starting Dec. 29 with additional material that wasn't part of the original series, says Wong, bringing in ad money for the cable channel and ultimately for parent company Disney.
Reality shows can become very lucrative when a company develops an original format and sells it internationally. UK-based Fremantle, for instance, developed Pop Idol and brought it over to Fox, which Americanized it. CBS sells Amazing Race abroad and Next Entertainment sells The Bachelor. Both the American series and the formats have become popular in other countries.
But there doesn't seem to be a syndication market, and there aren't characters that audiences can bond with long-term, like the cast of Friends or the presidential staff on The West Wing. On the other hand, no "cast" of any Survivor odyssey is getting paid $1 million an episode, either.
Still, the chance that audiences will tire of a reality show's personalities or format means that reality should be scheduled with a light and careful hand, says The WB President of Entertainment Jordan Levin. "As we've seen, reality programming certainly can create a splash that can boost your schedule. But, if used recklessly, it can be a short-term fix that, long term, leaves scorched earth behind on the schedule."
That said, Levin plans to use some reality to boost his schedule come January and February, when The WB fills its struggling Thursday time slots with three reality programs: High School Reunion, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and The Surreal Life, with High School Reunion playing on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET and again on Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Fox seems to have fewer concerns about Levin's scorched-earth theory, planning three nights of reality come January with Joe Millionaire, in which a laborer pretends to be a millionaire as he dates a bevy of unsuspecting beauties, on Monday nights and American Idol on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from Jan. 21 through May 6.
"It's just like saying there is too much drama on Fox or too much comedy on Fox. The viewers don't think about that," says Mike Darnell, head of reality programming for Fox. "People just watch what entertains them. The audience at home doesn't think 'This is a really great reality show but I wish it was a comedy.'"
Another bonus of reality shows is that they are an easy way to bring a younger age group to a network, something that CBS has found particularly helpful.
"I would never do a reality show that only had appeal toward young kids," says CBS's Maynard. "There has to be something in it for everyone. But Survivor, Amazing Race and Big Brother all do very well in the demographics." CBS hopes the same is true for the revival of its talent show Star Search, launching Jan. 8.
"It's just great television," says Darnell. "If it's great in any genre, it doesn't matter what the genre is."
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