Reality TV alters cablers skeds

Cable’s programming strategy has always been simple: unleash new series in the summer when broadcast networks air reruns. Now that bona fide reality hits like NBC’s “Fear Factor” are luring away precious summertime eyeballs, cablers are saving for fall and early winter bows their splashy new titles, a majority of which come from the reality genre.

“The truth of the matter is that we’re competing and counterprogramming on a 365-day, 12-month-a-year basis,” says Alan Sabinson, senior veep of programming for A&E. “You can’t just show up in June, July and August.”

That’s one reason why “Ultimate Reality,” an hourlong documentary series, bows Oct. 11 on A&E. Show is the brainchild of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” executive producer Michael Davies, who wanted to create a program about fulfilling people’s dreams. A&E solicited essay submissions through AandE.com to obtain contestants.

“We received everything from people that want to sail around the world to people that want to race NASCAR,” says Sabinson. “Ultimate Reality” contestants capture their experiences with a video camera, which are then played out across television and the Web.

“It’s not about a contest or voting people off or freaking you out,” says Sabinson.

‘Survival Handbook’

Conversely, TBS Superstation hopes to do just the latter with “Worst Case Scenario,” based on the bestseller “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook” (Chronicle Books), which provides life-saving tips to sticky situations. TBS ordered 22 episodes of the one-hour series that bows in January and features how-to segments like landing a plane and escaping from quicksand.

“What we want to push the most is not if you get trapped in quicksand, but when,” says Bill Cox, senior veep of programming for TBS, who confirms that “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” renewed for 2002, will be the lead-in.

“It’s the perfect companion piece because we are having such great success with (“Ripley’s”) on Wednesday nights. It’s such a boon for everyone to have a reality-type show because of the low production cost and the large audience it brings in.”

No stranger to attracting large audiences with reality-based fare like “The Real World” and “Jackass,” MTV still finds it challenging to compete with broadcasters’ offerings in the summer months, says Brain Graden, president of programming.

“Broadcasters have realized that summer is a fertile period for them,” he says. “There really is no pattern anymore because there are too many players to effectively counterprogram.”

Fame game

Graden believes that reality is not a fad and makes a conscious effort to deliver series that don’t just look like another “Survivor.” “Who Knows the Band,” premiering Sept. 24, spikes the gameshow format with a touch of reality as two contestants attempt to separate truth from fiction when three panelists, two of which are posers, spin tall tales connecting them to famous musicians.

“If you can even get close to fame, then you somehow count,” says Graden. “I think that’s a little perverse and I think it’s certainly where we are as a culture. That’s why the timing for this show seemed (good) right now.”

MTV’s sister network VH1 hit reality over the head today with “Sledgehammer,” on which correspondents take to the streets to inflict outlandish pranks upon an unsuspecting public.

“The appetite for this kind of show is very high; a lot of people will say this is like ‘Jackass,'” says Fred Graver, executive veep of programming for VH1. “It’s going to be our job to create our own unique voice.”

Graver says “Sledgehammer” reveals people’s passion for music and the extreme lengths they’ll go to follow it. “I think it will help us brand VH1 even further as a network that is smart and funny and connected to our audience’s love for music.”

Comedy Central also hopes to bolster its brand with “Beat the Geeks,” premiering Dec. 10, as well as new episodes of the hugely popular Brit import “Ab Fab,” coming in November.

“Brand is so important to us,” says Bill Hilary, executive

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veep. “Our programs need to have a certain edginess and innovation.”

The format of “Beat the Geeks” is still being fine-tuned but promises to deliver “immense battles of intellect” as ordinary people challenge a TV, movie and music geek (expert).

Hilary says “Beat the Geeks” is part of Comedy Central’s strategy to roll out one new show every month as opposed to just one week during the summer. “Putting out everything at once sends out a confused message.”

Even though Comedy Central has considered producing a reality show, Hilary feels there is “a real danger” in suddenly aping the network’s reality ways. “Cable should be pushing the envelope and setting the agenda, not following all the time.”

Premium cabler Showtime network also strives to be an alternative to broadcast networks.

“If you’re going to be an alternative, you’re going in counterpoint to what they’re doing,” says Gary Levine, executive veep of Showtime original programming. “I suppose we could do a ‘Temptation Island’ where they actually take their tops off in the Jacuzzi, but why bother?”

Showtime’s sci-fi series “Jeremiah”, starring Luke Perry and Malcom-Jamal Warner, is based on a European comicbook whose characters have achieved cult status in the U.S. and Europe. The 20-episode series is slated to debut in early 2002 and aims to please Showtime’s sci-fi audience on Fridays.

“‘Outer Limits’ and (‘Stargate SG-1′) do very well on Friday nights for us and we plan to pass the baton to ‘Jeremiah,'” says Levine.

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