Sunday, March 2, 2003

Reality trend rolls into spring


Television

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Reruns! Believe me, I know how much you hate prime-time network reruns!

So I've got some good news and bad news: You're going to see fewer reruns in March and April, when networks usually vamp with repeats while saving original episodes for May sweeps.

Replacing those dreaded reruns will be - you guessed it - more dreaded cheesy unscripted shows.

Welcome to TV's new reality.

The big lesson from the explosive popularity of reality TV in February - "the craziest month in the history of show business," says CBS president Leslie Moonves - is that unscripted shows will have a growing presence on prime-time TV this year in spring, summer and the new fall season.

"Will we see more of it? Yes. Someone has said it is like crack cocaine," Moonves says. He was referring to recent description of reality shows' quick-fix ratings by ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne.

Fox won February sweeps in the 18-49 demographic, the one most desired by advertisers, with twice-weekly broadcasts of American Idol (Tuesday and Wednesday), and the Joe Millionaire dating show replacing David E. Kelley's canceled Girls Club drama.

ABC, despite finishing fourth in sweeps, saw ratings jump by 30 percent with The Bachelorette on Wednesdays, and through filling troubled Thursday time slots with shows like Are You Hot?, I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! and the Michael Jackson interview. ABC also pulled The Practice and other Monday dramas to boost ratings with repeats of The Bachelorette and Jackson.

The trend continues: NYPD Blue will be pre-empted all month by ABC for The Family (10 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 9, 2), a reality show in which family members fight over a million-dollar fortune. ABC will "finish the Blue seasons with straight originals" by pulling the popular police series from March, Lyne says.

"We're trying out new reality shows (this spring) mostly in the place of repeat programming," says Lloyd Braun, ABC Entertainment chairman.

"You'll probably see more and more of this going on ... because we take a big hit (in ratings and revenues) when we put repeat programming on," he says.

NBC viewers will see fewer summer reruns, and many more reality programs, says Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment president.

"We're headed toward 52 weeks of original programming," says Zucker, who wants to find a Joe Millionaire/Bachelorette relationship franchise for NBC this summer. "I think that's good for television."

The bad news, however, is that Zucker envisions "a tremendous glut" of reality shows polluting the airwaves this summer. It's not a pretty TV picture.

Until then, ABC, Fox and NBC will continue plugging holes in their lineups this spring with short-term reality series aimed at viewers ages 18-34, who are so attractive to advertisers. The list includes Married by America and Mr. Personality (Fox); All-American Girl, Extreme Makeover and another The Bachelor (ABC); and The Most Talented Kid in America and a revival of Let's Make A Deal (NBC).

Fox also plans another installment of Joe Millionaire, even though 20 million viewers have figured out the scam. "We've sort of cracked the way to do it," says Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president.

CBS has Survivor thru May and Star Search twice a week. But much of March's schedule will be ripped up for the NCAA basketball tourney, so the network doesn't need a third hour of reality right now.

In conference calls after sweeps ended Wednesday, all of the network executives stressed that scripted dramas and comedies will continue to be the core of their business. "Scripted series remains our focus," says NBC's Zucker.

Even ABC executives repeat the vow, saying their goal is "to keep a strong and growing presence of scripted programs," Braun says. (He also says ABC has renewed all six comedies, plus Alias and NYPD Blue, for fall.)

Zucker says Joe Millionaire, American Idol and The Bachelor/Bachelorette make his scripted series - Friends, The West Wing, ER, Law & Order - all the more valuable to advertisers. The rush into reality TV "actually puts a premium" on weaker scripted series, he claims.

What's important, TV programmers say, is finding the proper mix of prime-time dramas, comedies, newsmagazines, reality shows and sports.

"This is all about balancing the `show' aspects of this with the `business' aspects. That's show business," Zucker says.

"Clearly, reality has become a more important player," says Moonves of CBS, which won February sweeps in total viewers and households, but not the key demographic. "It's not going away," Zucker says.

And how do the folks at ABC feel about being known not for The Practice, but the home of cheesy jigglevision like Are You Hot?

It's cool, they say.

"In the long run, I'm not (concerned). There are all kinds of different programs on our network over the season, from Monday Night Football to Miss America," Lyne says.

"We're trying to turn this place around faster than any one imagined," says Braun of ABC, which lost 25 percent of its audience last year when Who Wants to be a Millionaire collapsed.

"Not all of these (reality) shows are for everyone," Braun says. "We're probably the broadest of the broadcast networks."

E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com




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