A Ghost Of A Chance

Recently a TV exec, commenting on the growth of reality shows joked that the next topic for a series would be postal workers. The only problem though will be running for cover when the show is cancelled.

While subject matter for shows has not reached that level, it is getting close.

This year, the cops genre is being expanded and competition in the reality genre appears to be limited to shows dealing with the paranormal. The rapid growth of paranormal shows, many believe, is linked to the success of Fox’s “X-Files.”

“Each of the producers look to better position what they are doing,” says Katz Television vice president/director of programming Bill Carroll. “‘LAPD’ wants to not only show guys on the beat but show us that they are criminologists as well. ‘U.S. Customs’ wants to prove that they do more than border patrols.”

Here is a sampling of new law-and-order shows being pitched at this year’s NATPE:

* “Coast Guard” from MG/Perin will be a weekly half-hour show that will include footage of search-and-rescue missions, drug raids and immigrant enforcement missions. It is being produced with the help of the Coast Guard, which will be involved in the editing;

* “LAPD” from MGM will show local cops on the force in the nation’s second largest city. The daily strip is already selling well in a genre that shows no signs of slowing down;

* “Safe Streets,” from Kelly News and Entertainment, is an hourlong weekly that looks at community groups working with law enforcement to improve neighborhoods. Actor Tim Reid is host;

* “Juvenile Justice,” a weekly strip from Genesis Entertainment, will focus on the courtroom of Texas judge Eric Andell;

* “U.S. Customs: Classified” from Tradewinds will follow the battle of illegal immigration and other issues of customs officers;

* “Detour” from Worldvision is a half-hour strip of stories about ordinary people making extraordinary choices starring reporter Rafael Abramaovitz and produced by veteran Peter Brennan;

* “Scams,” also from MG/Perin, is a weekly half-hour show looking at con-artists. The show will also work with local stations and their consumer affairs reporters to update viewers on scams and what to look out for;

* “Thanks A Million,” from All American, is a strip show hosted by philanthropist/columnist Percy Ross who offers financial help to the needy.

Clearly, law enforcement shows are still hot.

“It is the only genre that can be programmed successfully against ‘Oprah,'” says Twentieth Domestic Television president Greg Meidel. “‘Cops’ has never been stronger. Look at the national numbers, we’re still at the top of the list.”

“It is an outstanding genre that still works,” says Sid Cohen, president of “LAPD” distrib, MGM Domestic Television. “Police dramas have been around for 40 years and they will always be around; this is just another form of that drama. People say ‘Holy mackerEl, look what happened today.'”

“Nightly news is depressing,” MTM Television Distribution president Chuck Larson says. ‘Rescue 911’ (distributed by MTM) is an uplifting and positive show that leaves people feeling good.”

Dick Perin, executive vice president, MG/Perin, also says the genre is not ripe for sudden change, especially because many smaller distributors bring the bulk of new shows to the market. “As a small indie distributor, you can’t set trends. You don’t have 38 sales people or big promotional budgets for ad campaigns. What we looked at is what is working,” Perin says. “Coast Guard,” he says, will further confirm that the market is still strong for these shows.

“Obviously the public has a great deal of interest in knowing what is going on out there. ‘Coast Guard’ will tell people about an area that very few people know anything about. We have incredible footage of searches, boat people and oil spills.”

He’s hoping that interest in law-and-order shows will carry over to “Scams,” which focuses on con artists.

“The old joke is that you can make more money with a pencil than with a gun.” The show, Perin adds, will be able to capitalize on local broadcasters’ investigative reporting “which has become a staple of their coverage.”

“The producers who brought this to me said, ‘Let’s go to the local stations, get their stories and run them in a national forum, then send in our crews to do an epilogue to the story. Forget about taking the high road of public service, it’s compelling reporting on the good guys and the bad guys and points out the foibles in America.'”

Genesis Entertainment executive vice president Phil Oldham says the genre offers shows that are “more compelling than fiction.”

“It is a balance between the good guys and how bad life is on the street for people who are not law-abiding,” says Oldham.

Cop shows, he says, have room to grow. Genesis recently produced a pilot for “Citizen’s Arrest,” a show documenting “average people who had to take care of their own situation.” He expects the company to come out with that project down the road but not this year.

Not all the extensions can work, though. Genesis was pitched a project called “Parole Board” but passed.

Kelly News & Entertainment is betting the cops genre can transfer to average citizens. “Safe Streets” is based on real-life non-profit organizations that work on improving neighborhoods. Their efforts range from putting in speed bumps to make streets safer for kids to getting gangs out of neighborhoods. Like Buena Vista’s “The Crusaders,” where reporters fight for causes as well as report battles, there is a touch of advocacy.

“We concluded that a show that highlighted positive efforts in the face of bad circumstances can also entertain,” says Alan Winters, executive vice president, Kelly News & Entertainment Broadcasting. “At the end of the show, there is a spirit of hope.”

“Safe Streets,” which is already cleared in 50% of the country, mostly in weekend time slots, also offers local stations a chance to participate by inserting “preproduced news and safe streets outreach (campaigns).”

To survive, Winters figures the reality genre will have to move beyond police.

“There needs to be a movement away from the exploitation of the crime issue,” he says. “The audience is not tiring of the programming; they may be tiring of the repetition.”

Reality’s next leap may be into the land of the unknown.

Paranormal tales, the seeds of which were planted years ago with “Unsolved Mysteries,” have long been crowd-pleasers.

“The science fiction genre has always been here and has universal appeal, ” says MGM’s Cohen, whose company is rolling out a remake of the “Outer Limits” drama at NATPE.

“The paranormal is starting to seep into every type of programming,” says John Kohler, executive director, creative affairs, Paramount Domestic Television, which is involved with “Sightings,” produced by Henry Winkler and Ann Daniel in association with Paramount.

“Sightings” was initially on Fox but went into syndication last year. “Fox wanted us to capture Big Foot. We said he was hard to find,” recalls Kohler, explaining how the show ended up moving to syndication.

“Sightings” focuses on paranormal phenomena and supernatural activity. And Kohler knows there are lines to be respected.

“We try to be skeptical without being cynical. We have to do that to be credible. We have to have an open mind without being kooky to maintain the balance of the show.”

As for why the topic is hot, Kohler says “People really believe something is going on out there. These shows appeal to that curiosity and offer alternative explanations.”

Is there a credibility gap down the road for reality? Some fear there may be.

“After a while, without picking out a particular show, we are starting to reach the edge of reasonable credibility,” notes Katz Television’s Carroll. “You get to a certain point where all the shows look the same. How many times can you see the same drug bust?”

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