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Reality bites reality TV as ratings take tumble

Aud interest peaks for unscripted entertainment

Real life may have finally caught up with reality television.

Though the new season is barely a week old, early ratings data seem to show that viewers’ once-insatiable appetite for unscripted entertainment may finally have peaked.

The latest evidence: ABC’s Friday bow of “The Mole II” tanked, finishing third in its 8 p.m. slot among younger viewers.

Meanwhile, CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” which had some of the best pre-season buzz of any new show this season, has lost viewers both times out since its Sept. 5 debut. Fox’s “Love Cruise” isn’t stirring up any waves, while the net’s “Who Wants to Be a Princess?” struck out not once but twice last week. And NBC’s “Lost” hasn’t been found by audiences, one reason the Peacock has decided to cut the show’s skedded six-week run in half.

Industry insiders say fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is partially to blame for the poor performance of the new crop of reality skeins.

News coverage of the event pre-empted scheduled episodes of some skeins, slowing any momentum those shows might otherwise have had. What’s more, in the face of such immense real-life loss and destruction, viewers may no longer be as interested in the petty bickering that’s become the hallmark of the genre.

“I’m not so sure the country will be as accepting of these shows as they’ve been in the past,” ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Lloyd Braun said at last week’s Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel of entertainment chiefs.

“You have to wonder whether people will look now and say, ‘Please, I don’t care anymore.’ ”

Even before Sept. 11, some pundits were predicting a rough patch for reality — simply because of the sheer glut of such programs skedded this fall.

“There are a lot of reality shows on this season,” one senior-level webhead said. “It’s harder for people to invest in new shows when there are just so many of them out there.”

But other TV insiders aren’t ready to sound the death knell for reality just yet. The genre’s heavy hitters have yet to premiere — and one school of thought says auds are ready to return to the familiar (though that didn’t help ‘The Mole’ last week).

TV’s comfort food

“People are gravitating to comfort food,” one net exec said. ” ‘Survivor’ will be fine, ‘Temptation Island 2’ will be fine. ‘Survivor’ is comfort food. People are questioning its relevance now, but what relevance did it have before? No one mistook ‘Survivor’ for reality.”

NBC insiders also believe its summer smash “Fear Factor” should do well when it returns, most likely in January. While some pundits have questioned whether Americans will care about the hyper-reality of “Fear” after witnessing the horrific events of Sept. 11, another spin says the skein has a fight-back quality that could resonate with auds.

“Rather than people trying to survive, in ‘Fear Factor’ at least it’s people trying to overcome their fears,” one webhead said.

A big unanswered question is whether the nets will go forward with the many nonfiction projects they still have in the hopper. For example, ABC’s high-profile “The Runner” — in which a contestant tries to elude capture from a nationwide manhunt — seems improbable now, though the net says the show’s still set for a January bow.

What seems likely is that nets will have to adjust to an era of diminished results from reality.

Hit-and-miss sampling

Execs point out that expectations have run high that every reality skein should hit straight out of the box, a la “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Survivor” and “Fear Factor.” But now that the novelty has worn off, viewers have started to sample reality series in the same hit-and-miss manner that they check out new comedies and dramas.

“Last year even mediocre shows were getting sampling,” one reality guru said. “We now have to be better than a year ago. ‘Amazing Race’ is a well-produced show, but how many well-produced dramas and comedies don’t make it?

“I saw this coming, all of us did,” the exec said. “Even before what happened (on Sept. 11). The mediocre stuff isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

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