Monday, May 24, 2004

Reality shows get the last laugh

Newest 'comedy stars' probably
won't be scripted actors

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

The first new fall series that ABC showed off last week was Wife Swap, a family-friendly show involving real-life moms trading homes for two weeks and inexplicably given a 10 p.m. time slot, after kids have gone to bed.

That, by itself, was a telling example of the rapid pace of change in the television industry.

Reality's new status and comedy's decline, the new use of reruns, and other offbeat strategies were all in evidence during the annual week that broadcast networks unveil their fall schedules to thousands of advertising executives.

Just a year ago, "reality" was still a dirty word at these presentations. None of the six networks scheduled any reality show that hadn't already been proven, like Survivor.

This year, eight previously unseen reality shows made it onto schedules. ABC played clips of its two, Wife Swap and The Benefactor, before showing any new dramas or comedies.

Before, there was a perception that if advertisers were going to take a chance on something new, it had to be scripted. That's plainly changed. Results can't lie: 12 of the year's top 20 shows among the young audiences advertisers crave are unscripted, said Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group.

With the loss of Friends, Frasier and Sex and the City, situation comedies are at a low ebb. Don't look for any immediate improvement. CBS, ABC and NBC are introducing a total of only six sitcoms this fall, and some look like they won't last long.

ABC, which had been trying to build with new comedies over the past few years, made an abrupt about-face. The 11 new series it ordered for next year include only two comedies. There's not much to choose from, said Stephen McPherson, ABC entertainment president.

"There have been a lot of rip-offs of other shows," he said. "There hasn't been a lot of good material."

Networks are searching for other comic forms. The WB has two sketch comedy shows scheduled with Jeff Foxworthy and Drew Carey. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) is making a Laugh-In-style show for Fox. Some of the reality shows, such as Wife Swap, are effectively being positioned as comedies.

"The biggest comedy stars to come out of this year are Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie," said Gail Berman, Fox entertainment president.

Fox set three different schedules for June, November and January, the boldest move yet toward year-round scheduling, a concept networks usually just give lip service to. It's partly out of necessity, since postseason baseball makes it hard for Fox to establish a new schedule in the fall.

The risk lies in confusing viewers; The Bernie Mac Show will have three different time slots in the next seven months.

Yet other networks are trying variations of the same theme, most prominently in how they are scheduling popular dramas.

Instead of keeping The West Wing, NYPD Blue and 24 on the schedule year-round and pre-empting them or interrupting with reruns, these dramas will run their seasons straight through. When they're done, different programs replace them for limited runs.

Top picksFor TV viewers, who don't get to see any of these new shows (except the Fox ones) until autumn, the real question is whether any of them are worth watching.

Here are three potential gems, according to David Bauder of
the AP:

• Kevin Hill, a UPN romantic comedy starring Taye Diggs as a busy lawyer who unexpectedly becomes a dad

 Jack & Bobby, a gripping WB pilot about the boyhood of a future president

• Clubhouse, a CBS show about a 16-year-old batboy for the New York Empires.Television

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