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Shifting reality

The screenwriters' settlement may delay development of unscripted programming 5/13/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Settlement of the Writers Guild contract drew a big "whew" from television executives. But getting back to TV business as usual may not be such great news for reality-based projects pushed into development to cushion a strike's blow.

Reality TV is still a sizzling genre. But, without a strike in the picture, scripted series carry as much weight as reality projects, as networks finalize their fall schedules for this week's upfronts. For example, The WB is considering Studios USA/LMNO Productions' revival of That's Incredible, along with shows like Smallville, about a young Superman. NBC is pondering Spy TV and Fear Factor from Big Brother producer Endemol and the next Law & Order installment, Criminal Intent.

The reality series could make it onto their respective networks, eventually. But now that the networks' best bets in comedy and drama can run as they typically do—during the high-profile fall season—some reality projects will likely be pushed elsewhere. Already, Bunim Murray's Love Cruise for Fox appears to be headed for a summer debut, rather than a fall strike-plan launch; likewise, its Lost in the U.S.A., for The WB, will probably debut in mid-season instead of in September.

And without the pre-settlement urgency, some reality shows might not launch at all. "There's no doubt that some of the reality projects that were put into development and ordered in anticipation of the strike are going to be much less interesting to the networks," admits David Kissinger, president of USA Television Production Group.

He insists, though, that That's Incredible, a revival of the 1980s series spotlighting zany performances and stunts, "is so good I'm not concerned what the strike settlement will do to its fortunes." But "possibly," he adds, it and other reality projects could get shifted to other outlets, such as cable or syndication. If the networks make scripted series a higher priority, Kissinger "would certainly try to find a home for it if we fail at The WB."

A WB representative calls scripted series the network's "bread and butter" but adds, "the reality pilots will be considered on equal footing with everything else here. We're not jettisoning reality because of the strike agreement."

Some sure things include second outings of ABC's The Mole and CBS' Big Brother, which are already in production at Stone Stanley Entertainment and Endemol Entertainment, respectively.

UPN entertainment chief Tom Nunan, looking at a second season of Endemol's Chains of Love and the WWF's Manhunt, similarly considers reality shows "just as valuable as scripted shows." However, he's sure some reality producers, "wanting to be the belles of the upfront, were muttering to themselves when the strike did get resolved."

Bunim-Murray Executive Producer Jon Murray is not concerned that Love Cruise, a more romantic Survivor at sea, and Lost in the U.S.A., a cross-country scavenger hunt, are not guaranteed spots in Fox's and The WB's splashy fall upfront presentations. If the projects land in summer or mid-season, "the competition will be easier," he says, noting that Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? first found their footing outside the regular fall season.

Other top reality producers also see big things for reality projects they have up their sleeves—even without strikes on the horizon.

With seven or eight projects still being negotiated, says Endemol Entertainment USA President David Goldberg, "we see no change in the amount of business."

As for Fear Factor, on which contestants try to conquer phobias, and Spy TV, an extreme hidden-camera show, Goldberg says NBC has set tentative start dates, leading him to believe it's full steam ahead on the efforts.

LMNO CEO Eric Schotz insists that reality is all the rage right now. "We don't develop for strikes. I think reality was the flavor of the month before there was ever any strike talk."