Reality Without Remorse

At this year's upfronts, non-scripted shows are crown jewels

Next season will be all about reality. Last year, the major networks entered the fall season with six reality series on their schedules. This fall, they slotted 18, and have lots more on the back burner. The days when networks apologized to Madison Avenue for relying too much on non-scripted programming are over.

In fact, at CBS's upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall last week, buyers were more excited to see Rupert Boneham, the Neanderthal-like Survivor: All-Stars
favorite stride onstage than the network's reigning comedy king, Ray Romano.

It was abundantly clear during the gala presentations to advertisers that the networks are selling reality shows as their prime time crown jewels. And advertisers are ready to pay—retail.

Advertisers know that reality is now prime prime time real estate. NBC's Donald Trump-fest The Apprentice gets the kind of plaudits and audience once reserved for Friends. No new comedy or drama has that kind of buzz.

At ratings-starved ABC, where little has worked to boost ratings, comedian Jimmy Kimmel annually makes a stage appearance to relentlessly chronicle the network's shortcomings. This year, he told the crowd that ABC had failed to realize the value of reality programming. "The reason we didn't buy The Apprentice
was that it hit too close to home with Trump coming in and saying "You're fired! You're fired."

But a year ago, Kimmel reflected the general attitude on non-scripted shows when he reported that, officially, ABC had quit referring to them as reality shows. "From now on," he said, "they'll simply be referred to as 'shit.' "

That was before an onslaught of Trump and Bachelors and Bachelorettes and Average Joes and Queer Guys swarmed into American living rooms, virtually nightly. Reality used to be filler for failed scripted series. Now, it seems, the situation is reversed.

NBC emphasized to advertisers that The Apprentice will make 34 episodes this season; basically, it only gets some weeks off around the holidays (when it will be relieved by two sitcoms). Likewise, though mainly it's been a cable show for NBC-owned Bravo, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is doing 40 makeover episodes this year.

Reality is so lucrative at the moment that networks can't stop themselves. Even CBS News President Andrew Heyward acknowledges that permanently renaming his new show 48 Hours Mysteries plays off the reality craze. News, after all, is based (at least somewhat, these days) on reality.
At one point last week, CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves—tongue firmly in cheek—seemed wistful as he reminisced about NBC hits like Cheers and Seinfeld and L.A. Law. Simultaneously, an old promo, "The Quality Shows on NBC," began to run on the monitor. Quickly, the CBS revision patched together the grossest bug/worm/larvae (and subsequent vomit) scenes from Fear Factor. "Product placement, anyone?" Moonves asked devilishly.

Fear Factor aside, product placement in reality shows is big business, and so is product placement everywhere else. Last week, The WB and Kmart signed a huge multimillion-dollar cross-promotion deal; in a six-week back-to-school campaign, stars of WB shows will wear Kmart clothes and appear in the discount store's commercials. That's a good deal because The WB has been late to the reality craze (it actually apologized for that last week and has added a handful of reality shows, coming soon ) and has missed some of those product-placement deals.

Moonves, of course, has Jerry Bruckheimer, who not only is the executive-producer of all those CSI
and other crime procedurals that pop up on the CBS schedule like dandelions in May, but also makes The Amazing Race reality series, too.

Moonves hasn't backed off from CBS's bullish stance that it deserves double-digit ad rate increases in the upfront. If it doesn't get them, he warned advertisers, the network might just pull inventory off the market and wait to clean up later on.

There was bravado like that elsewhere, too, although it took a weird form. NBC's Jeff Zucker, in a shower of charts, basically confirmed at his network's upfront that broadcasting's audience was a shell of its former self, though a much bigger shell than anybody else's and a better-quality one, too. His message was clear: You'd be a fool anywhere but NBC.

Later, Conan O'Brien came onstage to make a far-too-serious afternoon almost bearable, proclaiming proudly that "NBC is still the leader in misleading bar graphs." He noted, for example, the impressive graph demonstrating that there are far more NBC shows on NBC than on any other network and another one proving conclusively that, in some important ways, NBC programming is itself vastly superior to a sweater.

That was the funny stuff at the upfronts. The jokes came from Kimmel, O'Brien, and, because he's such a willing ham, Moonves. Without Friends and, soon, without Everybody Loves Raymond, the genre that reality TV may be replacing is the sitcom, a format that seems to be wandering aimlessly. Last year, the networks introduced 20 comedies; only four of them returned for a second season.

That's not a way to win audiences or advertisers or stop the flow to cable. In the next few days, when the deals start happening, we'll see who laughs last.