Repeats of dramas and comedies are hitting all-time lows, as cheaper, original reality series continue to attract audiences, especially at NBC.
Networks have traditionally used the summer to amortize the high costs of scripted series by running dramas like ER
and The X-Files
a second time. But, said network executives, speaking at the Television Critics Association meetings in Los Angeles last week, new economic models—for example, repurposing on cable and reduced production costs—are essential.
"The biggest story in network television this summer is not the success of these [reality] programs. That's a huge story … but the biggest story in network television this summer has been the performance of the repeats of scripted comedies and dramas, in particular the dramas," NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told critics. "And that's a scary proposition."
For the first two months of the summer, NBC's ER
is down 14% in adults 18-49 and 17% in total viewers; ABC's The Practice
is off 28% and 31%; Fox's The X-Files
has dropped 20% and 21%; and CBS' Judging Amy
is down 29% and 27%.
All the Big Four networks are down—even NBC, which has ridden the success of Fear Factor, Spy TV
and Weakest Link
to 13 straight weekly victories in adults 18-49. NBC is off 3% in adults 18-49 and 8% in total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research figures comparing May 29-July 16, 2000, with May 28-July 15, 2001.
ABC is off 21% in 18-49 and 22% in viewers; CBS is down 23% and 15%, respectively; and Fox is off 7% in both key demos.
"The network-television business is more challenged than ever as it tries to make sense out of its cost structure," said Fox Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow. "Network license fees are not going to be able to continually increase. There is going to have to be a way to come up with lower-cost programming, and one of the ways we are looking to do that is repurposing." Fox will likely air new series 24
and Nathan's Choice
on co-owned cable network FX during the upcoming season, he said.
NBC executives said similar deals are in the works at co-owned Pax TV and possibly unaffiliated cable outlets, such as USA, which already airs Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
in the same week as its first run on NBC. The WB is set to put at least one series, Charmed, on a co-owned Turner cable network next season.
"It's not the studios, it's us. It's our fault," said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. "We have to be smart about how we find people, writers and actors. We should focus more on the organic, find people who are just ready to succeed."
The proliferation of reality series was the other big topic during the first of two weeks of network presentations. For network programming executives, the knife incident on CBS' Big Brother 2
couldn't have come at a worse time. CBS executives don't meet critics until this week, but the 200-plus journalists lit into NBC, Fox, UPN and The WB executives over the "sleazy" reality trend, one critic asking Fox executives, "Will there be dead bodies piled up in one house or one island or whatever?"
Another asked Sassa and Zucker whether they are proud of the network's summer reality shows. Zucker said they are, adding, "Last summer, there was a lot of heat here for us not developing in this genre. You all wanted to know why we didn't come to the party. And now you don't like the gifts we brought."
Executives of the other networks distanced themselves from the reality crossfire. Grushow, whose network has aired reality fare from When Animals Attack
to Temptation Island, said networks need to balance their schedules with a mix of reality, drama and comedy.
Even so, he clearly said there is no getting rid of the genre. "Let's face it, no network can compete in today's marketplace without it. Audiences have proven time and again that they have an enormous appetite for it, and even advertisers who were once resistant have begun to embrace a significant percentage of it. In the long run, networks that use unscripted programming to mask their inability to create new scripted hits, they're going to fail. We know. It happened to Fox."
The WB's Jordan Levin, whose network is adding a Sunday-night reality wheel (three original shows spread across the season) and Elimidate Deluxe
this fall, said, "There's an ugliness out there that we don't feel belongs on our network. I think it's very disturbing what happened on Big Brother
on a number of levels."
UPN's Dean Valentine said he is not looking to develop any more Chains of Love
or salacious reality shows. Rather, the network is developing a family-targeted reality series and steering in new directions. "Reality series are a lot like heroin," he said. "There's a big high at first, followed by a long, long low. I think the challenge is to find a way to re-create the half-hour and the hour in a way that attracts the audience that is flocking to the reality genre."
Asked how and when networks might go in a different direction, the networks pointed to advertisers. "The great equalizer is the advertising community," Grushow said, adding that sales for Temptation Island 2
and Love Cruise
have gone well. "They certainly have the ability to impact, if not dictate, the kinds of shows that go on the air. If the advertisers ever stood up en masse and said that's it, we're not supporting these shows, I think that's where you'd see some real impact."
—Additional reporting by Susanne Ault