Celebs vs. civilians: Reality losing touch

Are stars the real thing?

As celebrities elbow out the common folk on primetime gamers, reality TV suddenly looks a lot less real.

Celeb-themed shows have dominated primetime airings of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Weakest Link” this season, while “Fear Factor” has also started airing a greater mix of episodes with name-brand guests.

But insiders — including some reality producers and execs — believe an overreliance on celebs has hurt those shows’ long-term viability.

“It’s a good gimmick, but for some reason it seems to spell the decline of a show,” says Mike Darnell, Fox exec VP of alternative programs and specials. “You do it, and then I guess your regular episodes begin to feel less special. People start to drop out.”

“Millionaire,” “Weakest Link” and “Fear Factor” started off as showcases for regular people lucky enough to land a chance at answering some questions or making an ass of themselves for big bucks.

But it’s hard to resist the allure of a celebrity stunt, especially once a show starts to decline or the network has a few sweeps holes to plug. And at least initially, star power can juice ratings and attract younger viewers who might have strayed.

After all, some of “Millionaire’s” best ratings ever came in May 2000, when the show aired its first celeb edition (featuring the likes of Dana Carvey and Ray Romano). “Millionaire” had started to show some slight declines prior to that stunt but came back strong and was at the top of its game that week.

At that point, the show seemed unstoppable. But in the long run, that week may have been the moment “Millionaire” (to borrow the terminology of a popular Web site) “jumped the shark.”

“Those first celebrity ‘Millionaires’ were great — they looked like brand new TV,” Darnell says. “But then you go back to regular people, and expectations have been raised.”

While most “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” eulogies have focused on the show’s primetime saturation, the show’s overreliance on celeb editions hasn’t helped. Once the gamer started bigger stunts with celebrities, “Millionaire” started suffering its biggest declines.

After all, celeb editions are no longer special events. “Millionaire’s” Monday night seg went all-star this year, while “Link” has almost entirely eliminated civilians in primetime now that NBC Enterprises has premiered a syndicated version.

Celebrity editions also began to suffer once big names were exhausted. That’s when the game skeins turned to themed stunts: “Millionaire” has showcased comedy, sports, top of the charts, classic TV star, rock star and Olympic editions.

“Weakest Link” has stunt episodes with the “Brady Bunch” cast, infamous newsmakers, “Survivor” castaways, ’80s TV stars, WWF wrestlers and child actors, among others.

“We can relaunch the show in different ways,” argues “Link” producer Phil Gurin. “Going back and forth (between celebs and civilians) keeps it fresh.”

But gameshow scholar and Union U. prof Steve Beverly worries that gamers have moved too far away from the drama that made them compelling in the first place: real people taking risks to earn life-changing money.

“It gets old quickly to see millionaires playing for a million dollars,” Beverly says. “At the same time, it’s nice to know the American Cancer Society is getting helped, but the idea of a charity getting money isn’t really compelling for the audience.”

As for “Fear Factor,” Endemol USA topper David Goldberg, whose company produces the show, says he hopes to avoid the temptation of airing too many celeb episodes.

It’s gonna be hard: “Factor’s” November sweeps celeb episode was its highest-rated of the season; the show has also already aired Playmate and WWF editions and has more in the works.

“Over time the uniqueness and special quality of doing programs with celebrities loses its appeal, its freshness,” Goldberg says. “That’s why I think doing these things periodically makes more sense than trying to program the majority of shows with celebrity involvement.

“If you can keep up that level over time and celebrities every week forever, that very well could work,” he says. “But you can’t keep up that pace.”

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