Reeling with reality: How much is enough?

Temptation Island starts out bigger than summer Survivor

The second half of the TV season or should we say reality season got under way last week with a bit of controversy, a lot of hype and a pair of promising new sitcoms.

Five months after Survivor
broke all the summer viewing records for CBS, rival networks The WB, Fox and ABC got into the reality race with programs of their own. The second chapter of the 2000-2001 season featured the launch of ABC's The Mole
, The WB's Popstars
and Fox's controversial Survivor
-like series Temptation Island.

Temptation Island
didn't let the network down in the ratings. The reality program, which features four unmarried couples tempted to cheat on each other, drove millions of viewers to Fox-most of them within the desirable 18-49 demographic.

It attracted 16 million viewers, an 8.3 rating/19 share in adults 18-49 and a 10.9/26 in adults 18-34. The series raised its 9 p.m. ET/PT time period average by 219% in total viewers and 246% in adults 18-49. And by the way, in head-to-head comparisons, Temptation Island
out-rated the first episode of Survivor
in total viewers (16.1 million vs. 15.5 million), in adults 18-34 (10.9/26 vs. 6.7/23) and in adults 18-49 (8.3/19 vs. 6.1/20). Survivor
may have aired in the summer, but Temptation Island
launched against The West Wing
and several other strong network shows.

With three reality formats premiering last week, and Survivor
starting its second chapter Jan. 28, after the Super Bowl, could it really be true that Hollywood is asking: Is it too much reality?

"These reality series are very exciting formats, with interactive components and other compelling angles," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, TN Media's VP of broadcast research. "But they require a great deal of energy and dedication from viewers and I don't see viewers latching on to four and five different reality shows going on at the same time. I think viewers can only be emotionally committed to one or two and we know Survivor
is going to be one of the them."

Critics and even editorial writers had a field day, and CNN's Talkback Live
discussed the show for an hour a day after it aired. "The most troubling aspect of Temptation Island
and its ilk is not the shows themselves," said The New York Times
in an editorial. "It is the evasions of television executives who try to make these shows sound like the latest installment in an ongoing discussion of modern commitment."

The New York Daily News
said Fox "is back at the latrine" and said, "The more voyeurs it can suck in, the bigger the ratings, the higher the advertising fees/revenues. The execs fatten their coffers by feeding trash to an all-too-gullible public."

Temptation Island, was indeed highly publicized by the network, and was the center of controversy before even airing last week. Fox executives revealed late last week that one of the four unmarried couples on Temptation Island
had hidden the fact that they had a child together before going on the series.

The couple, who have not been identified, were removed from the show and taken out of the story-line. It's the second reality controversy for Fox within the last year, following the Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?

At the Television Critics Association meetings in Los Angeles, entertainment reporters took Fox executives to task for airing "immoral" programming and let Fox Broadcasting and Twentieth Century Fox head Sandy Grushow have it.

"We obviously would not have put something on our air if we didn't think it was appropriate," Grushow said in the show's defense. "The show is what the show is and the promos were and are what the promos were and are."

A year ago, after the nightmare that was Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?
Fox executives vowed to take the network away from such reality fare. And the network did put much of its focus this season on scripted dramas and comedies, but Grushow said the success of Survivor
and the sudden push at the network TV-level for reality programming forced Fox executives to go back in.

"This is a business and I'm responsible to a lot of people, including the investors in this company," Grushow said. "And it would be negligent on my part not to let [Fox Entertainment President] Gail Berman and her programming team to try to pursue what is obviously an incredibly powerful trend in the industry."

ABC's weekly reality series, The Mole, grabbed young viewers at a time ABC could stand to get some. The Mole
posted strong young-demographic results, averaging a 5.6/14 in adults 18-49 and a 6.3/17 in adults 18-34. Both figures significantly boosted ABC's Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot that was formerly home to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
But in terms of overall viewership, The Mole
(13.7 million viewers) was off 32% from Millionaire's
20.2 million average for the time period, one indicator of the older-skewing nature of Regis Philbin's game show.

The WB's Popstars
debuted Friday, one night after UPN's claymation series Gary & Mike, which started with a decent 4.7 rating and 7 share in Nielsen overnights, benefiting from a WWF Smackdown
lead-in. (Gary & Mike
will regularly air on Fridays with repeats of MTV's claymation series Celebrity Death Match).

In terms of regular, old-fashion sitcoms, Fox and NBC received critical praise and decent ratings for the premieres of Grounded For Life
and Three Sisters,
respectively. Grounded For Life
improved Fox's Wednesday 8:30 p.m. ET/PT time period by 50% in total viewers (12.7 million viewers) and by 61% in adults 18-49 (6.6/16). Three Sisters, which launched behind Frasier
on Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., raised its time slot by 27% in adults 18-49 (7.6/17) and 20% in total viewers (16.3 million).