Surviving gimmick TV

Comedy-, drama-series producers and writers vexed by the inroads reality programming is making on prime time schedules

It was only a few months ago that Fox's top executive on the alternative- and reality-programming front wasn't too sure he that would have a job in the fall.

Mike Darnell, responsible for Fox's reality series such as When Animals Attack, had just been through a public-relations nightmare over Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and was fending off critics at every corner. But Darnell had actually been the one person who almost single-handedly kept Fox's ratings up with weird reality programming-from secrets of top magicians to car-chase specials-that grabbed viewers while Fox's scripted series did not. But after the Multi-Millionaire debacle, reality didn't look too good.

Then came ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and CBS' Survivor, and Darnell's parking space on the FOX lot was safe again.

"It's been the most unusual year of my life. These last few weeks since Survivor debuted have just been a whirlwind," he says. "Everyone, foreign and domestic, has been trying to bring us the next Survivor or the next big hit. We are just going from one meeting to the next."

Darnell says he has ordered six different reality formats within the last month, including several from U.S. producers and others from abroad. And what has been taking place at FOX has also been happening at ABC, NBC, UPN and other Hollywood studios and cable networks.

The rush to get in line for the next Survivor or Big Brother has sent Hollywood into a tizzy. It's the second time within the past year that the networks have been forced to play catch-up on the reality front; it was only last August that ABC's Millionaire forced all of the other top networks to scramble for their own game shows.

"The face of television has changed dramatically over the last 10 months," says CBS Television President and CEO Les Moonves. "I think what this last year has taught us is that there are no rules in what's going to work and what's not."

So what does that mean for prime time network television? Are the tried- and-true lineups of mainly sitcoms and dramas just a thing of the past? Are comedy and drama writers, producers and actors in serious financial jeopardy?

"It means fewer jobs," says Greg Krizman of the Screen Actors Guild. "The actors are sort of at the mercy of what the networks put on the air. We can only perform in what is written and what is sold. Certainly, there are cyclical programming trends and things that you have to weather and get through. But 12, 18 months from now, are we still going to be watching Millionaire and Survivor? That's the question."

Shows ordered for midseason will likely be hit the hardest if the broadcast networks really make a push to get reality shows on the air this season, says Studios USA President David Kissinger.

"I think that there is no doubt that all of the networks will be focused on finding their Survivor and their Millionaire, and that will take up some of the real estate that would have otherwise been available. So, yeah, it will probably be a very tough season," says Kissinger, who oversees such prime time fare as Law & Order and NBC's upcoming drama Deadline.

Comedies at the Big Four actually have come down from a high of 47 in fall 1996, to just 29 this coming fall. Last season, 40 dramas were scheduled for the start of the season across the Big Six networks (UPN and The WB included), but this fall that number is down to 31. Millionaire alone will take up four hours of prime time real estate at ABC this season, where only four series have been added for the fall-the network's fewest ever. The addition of the new XFL football league on Saturdays at NBC next winter, WWF Smackdown! on UPN and movie franchises across most of the networks takes away more time from potential new comedies and dramas.

"I don't think there is too much reality programming on the air; I don't think there is any given amount of any given genre," says new ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau. "I was part of the scheduling process, and we decided to put Millionaire on the air four times a week. I think it was the best move for that show.''

"With Millionaire, if you look at ABC's schedule with four of them on the air next fall, they have replaced what could otherwise be series programming," says CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem. "Les [Moonves] likes to say that's 100 people's jobs eliminated. So there is a whole different feel out there. I think people feel very much threatened by this programming. And I know some networks are saying that they want to see more reality programming, and they have kept their midseason production on hold. Well, for a comedy or drama writer or a producer, that's pretty scary."

Drew Carey producer Bruce Helford, who has two new shows ready to debut this season (The Oblongs and Nikki), says he's not worried.

"These things never have a long life span because they are gimmick-oriented," says Helford, who should hope the gimmick lasts awhile, because Drew Carey will benefit from Millionaire's lead-in audience at ABC this fall. "So it means a couple of rough years, maybe a few rough years, but, in the course of the history of television, it has happened many times before. It's cyclical, and nothing is really going to change, not in the long term."

Only the strong will survive. "You know what this all means?" asks Scott Stone, of Stone Stanley Entertainment, which recently sold reality series The Mole to ABC. "It means comedies will be funnier and dramas will be better, because there is a finite number of good writers, and they will be more concentrated in the successful shows."

Eric Schotz, the president of LMNO Productions, who is producing Fox's upcoming summer game show Krypton Factor, says it's "arrogant" for producers of dramas and comedies to be complaining about "their" space being eaten up by reality series.

"It's not their time or my time for that matter," says Schotz, whose company is currently in negotiations with a handful of networks for other potential reality shows. "This is broadcasting. What are these people complaining about? In the network world, I think there is room for everything."

Are the networks planning to radically alter their schedules-filled with sitcoms and dramas-that advertisers have already committed $8 billion to in the upfront market? No way.

"At the end of the day, NBC has been known for having a primarily story-formed network structure, with shows like The West Wing, ER, Frasier, Friends and Will & Grace, that are all pretty upscale," says NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier. "That's primarily what we want our network to be known for. At the same time, to think reality programming shouldn't be a part of the landscape of a network would be foolish," and NBC has plans to offer reality shows at some point this fall and certainly next summer.

But even at CBS, where Survivor made the network's summer a wildly improbable success, executives are saying don't look for too much of the reality genre come fall.

"We are not looking to change our network into a reality programming schedule," says CBS' Tellem. "We are still looking at very much a balance of our traditional series programming, our movies, our newsmagazines, our events and some reality stuff thrown into the mix.We are still a broadcaster, and that's indeed what we are offering, a wide spectrum of programming."