As Time Goes By, Reality Bites

The reality genre is hot and still growing, but do these shows have an afterlife? Depends on who you ask.

Clearly “Cops,” the grandfather of reality shows, is still as viable today as it was at its inception. Reruns of “Cops” are delivering solid ratings. And keep in mind that while these shows won’t have the afterlife of a “Cheers” or “MASH,” the production values are so low that most are in the black with even slight ratings success.

But “Cops” may prove to be the exception rather than the rule.

“The shelf life is non-existent,” says Jack Fentress, vice president and director of programming, Petry Television. “The clothing and cars date these shows, and it’s difficult to hold those over five years.”

Bill Carroll, vice president, director of programming, Katz Television, agrees: “With shelf life, we’ve seen that ‘Cops’ is the longest term player. But the uniqueness is not there as it was when it first came on the air.”

Phil Oldham, executive vice president, Genesis Entertainment, points to the success of “The Judge” as proof that there can be a life beyond first-run syndication.

“‘The Judge’ stayed in production for five years. Then the rerun packages were in syndication for two more years plus five years of cable.” Oldham says that as the shows lose their broadcast appeal or face oblivion from over-saturation, cable can become an alternative.

“‘Highway Patrol’ paired with ‘Cops’ did well in syndication,” he says. “A cable network could take a couple of shows to create a reality block.”

There is an international market for reality shows, especially for some of the paranormal programs.

“Paranormal shows have greater legs in the international market,” says Drew Levin, president of DSL, an arm of the Producers Entertainment Group that distributes “Nick Mancuso – Mysterious Forces From Beyond” abroad and on cable here.

“These shows are much more global,” says Levin. DSL is also in negotiations for “Future-quest,” a pop culture meets science fiction show hosted by Jeff Goldblum, currently on TBS. “The foreign market has great potential,” he says, adding that the show already has a deal with Channel 4 in the U.K.

Domestically, the paranormal genre may have a built-in afterlife on cable through USA Networks’ Sci-Fi Channel, which has a strong appetite for any programming that can be tied to its format.

And just as “Baywatch” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” have found huge audiences abroad despite being overwhelmingly American, so believers say foreign auds will love reality.

But the genre may need a boost at home. While syndicators in the first-run business are still high on the format, networks have been steering clear over the past two years.

“The networks have come full circle with their love-hate relationship with non-fiction programming,” says David Percelay, a former network news exec who now heads up Scripps Howard Productions. “The networks need non-fiction programming as part of their mix and cost containment, but the entertainment divisions are fighting hard now for the 10 p.m. timeslot.”

The news divisions, Percelay adds, don’t stray far from news magazines, but may have to. He points to the Michael Moore series “TV Nation,” with which NBC has yet to have much success, as a potential model of future reality programming.

Another indicator of the declining interest in reality by networks, says Percelay, is the dwindling number of fact-based movies for TV “which are inspired by violence.”

“All the networks have lost their appetite and the form did not distinguish our medium.”

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