New Reality Comes to Hollywood

Success of non-fiction genre may help keep lid on prices of dramas this year

Even though reality shows cover a good portion of network schedules these days, development on new drama and comedy pilots is moving along as fast and furiously as ever. Most of the broadcast networks have as many or more pilots in the pipeline as they did last year at this time. The difference, according to network executives, is that the availability of less expensive reality shows is driving down the cost of dramas, which don't repeat or syndicate nearly as well as comedies.

In the Script for Fall
Number of pilots ordered so far
Network Comedy Drama
Source: Broadcasting & Cable research
The WB1310

"I think that we are all going to be looking to make dramas at a different price point," said Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment. "Not every drama has to cost $2.2 million. Monk
was made for about half of what a network drama was made for."

NBC Executive Vice President of Prime Time Series Programming Karey Burke said, "The success of the reality business puts an overdue pressure on the costs of the drama business to come down. Networks and studios," she added, "are more motivated to hold the line and not pay a given talent as much money."

But that's not what actors, writers, directors and producers want to hear. Those groups worry that reality shows are taking work away from them, and they complain about the quality of TV. "Writers are concerned as a general community about the increase of reality programming as a genre and about what that will do for the landscape of television," said Victoria Riskin, president of the Writers Guild of America. "And they are concerned about the opportunities that remain for them to get their comedies or their hour-long series on the air. What's troubling to me about reality shows is the emphasis on public humiliation and embarrassment."

"The effects ripple through so many areas of the business," noted Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president and director of broadcast research for Initiative Media. "If you put more reality on the schedule, there are less repeats of scripted series. That means less residuals for actors, writers and producers."

On the other hand, said American Federation of Television and Radio Artists President John Connolly, in shows such as American Idol, the performers become members of AFTRA's union after performing on the show for a certain number of episodes. And in Celebrity Mole, the contestants already are AFTRA members, so the trend toward reality programming doesn't appear to him to be taking work away from his members.

"By about halfway through the show's run, all of the remaining contestants are full professionals who work under the terms of an AFTRA contract. At some point, the 10 finalists all receive management contracts. It's an entrée to the business."

From the networks' point of view, reality has been a magic bullet that helps them shore up ratings in a less expensive way while they give the rest of their scripted programming time to grow.

"I think it's great for network television that shares are increasing on these nights," Burke said. "It means a lot more people are watching television and a lot more people are talking about television."

According to Burke, NBC is looking to introduce more balance into its schedule, by including reality year-round, as well as by introducing all sorts of new shows in periods other than September and midseason.

"If anything," she said, "we'd be remiss in not taking a step back, looking at the changing landscape and seeing how it affects scripted programming creatively."

Still, even though ABC has been happy to use reality to its advantage with shows such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Celebrity Mole, Lyne said, "I would happily trade a lot of reality shows for one or two more great scripted dramas."