Reality returns to stalwarts like 'Candid Camera'

The ghosts of Allen Funt and Kermit Schafer still haunt reality TV.

Funt first came up with the idea of playing pranks on unsuspecting folk and filming it all via hidden cameras; his “Candid Camera” hit the airwaves at the birth of network TV in 1948.

Schafer, meanwhile, started showcasing “bloopers” via recordings of radio gaffes in the 1950s and ’60s.

Both franchises were wildly popular in their day.

Fast-forward 50 years: At least five primetime series (including a new edition of “Candid”) revolve around hidden cameras, and almost every network has a blooper franchise in its arsenal of specials (CBS’ “Funny Flubs and Screw Ups,” ABC’s “Bloopers,” NBC’s “Funniest Outtakes”).

That’s right — for all the buzz surrounding hot new reality formats and fresh-faced producers, two of the genre’s most ubiquitous formats are half a century old and come from creators who have long since met their Creator.

“They’re a known commodity, and they’re an easy sell,” says Fox alternative series exec VP Mike Darnell. “They don’t work big, but they work.”

These days, that’s good enough for most networks. While “Survivor” gets all the ink, the nets need a “Funny Flubs and Screw Ups” to balance out their primetime skeds.

“Reality now needs to be a staple of television for the networks,” says Jeff Gaspin, exec VP of programming at NBC. “It’s something that’s always been around, but it was usually on one network or another; you never saw competing reality shows. But with reality now a more prominent staple of TV, you need some sort of alternative programming that’s original and less expensive than scripted shows.”

And in an age where scripted-program costs continue to skyrocket, hidden-camera, blooper and clip shows remain the unsung heroes of primetime TV. But they sure don’t match the recent promise of the new generation of reality TV.

In the post-“Survivor” era, reality TV finally earned some long overdue respect.

The TV Academy created two Emmy Awards for the genre; jobs overseeing “alternative programming” suddenly became crucial (and powerful) gigs at the networks and agencies; and reality skeins even made it en masse onto the fall schedules, rather than settling for midseason-replacement status.

The infusion of drama into shows such as “The Real World,” “Survivor,” “The Mole” and “The Amazing Race” helped give the genre some extra heft, while recent entries “The Bachelor” and “American Idol” generated more buzz than most scripted series.

But the webs’ abundance of clip-oriented specials and series, in comparison, are relatively fluffy — and don’t generate as much watercooler talk.

“They’re not necessarily loud ideas, like ‘The Bachelor,'” says Andrea Wong, senior VP, specials and alternative series, at ABC. “They’re not doing massive, runaway-hit numbers, but they’re very solid performers.”

So why have the nets opted to return time and time again to the not-so-fresh hidden-camera/bloopers/clip show well?

It’s not sexy, but call it the last bastion of “least objectionable programming” in primetime.

“It’s still easier to digest a hidden-camera or blooper show if you’re trying to decide what to watch,” Darnell says. “It’s easier to watch that than a drama you’ve never seen or a sitcom you don’t care about.”

Follow the money

Then there’s the other obvious explanation: Economics.

Granted, the cost for some low-budget reality shows can add up if you’re licensing clips (the average hour winds up at about $500,000). But these foot soldiers of primetime will match ratings for scripted series that cost three or four times more to produce.

Network stalwarts like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Cops” aren’t media darlings, but the shows’ ratings have held up in recent years while most other skeins continue to suffer declines.

“They balance the economics of the schedule,” Wong says. “You look at the other network and say, ‘Why can’t I do them?’ “

Hence the multitude of hidden-camera shows in primetime.

Besides Pax’s new take on “Candid,” NBC airs its titillating “Spy TV”; WB has pinned some of its comedic hopes on “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment”; and Fox will telecast not one but two entries: “Meet the Marks” and “Totally Extreme Hidden Video.”

Especially in the case of “Jamie Kennedy” and “Meet the Marks,” producers believe they’ve found a way to tweak an old idea.

“When there’s a concept that appeals to audiences, even if they haven’t seen it in a long time, they’ll watch it,” says Mike Karz, who produces “Jamie Kennedy.” “We’re expanding on a format we knew was entertaining and has been done brilliantly in the past, starting with Allen Funt, and interjecting personality into the equation.”

But it’s still a recycled format — and in that regard, reality TV has become much more like its scripted counterparts. Nets will mine the same comedy and drama ideas (New York-based cop show, anyone?) and occasionally come up with a hit twist on an old concept. Reality TV is no different.

ABC, for example, has aired a series of specials that highlight unusual commercials; now other nets are following suit with variations such as commercial outtakes.

“The same way law shows seem to work over and over again, every few years you see another hidden-camera show,” Darnell says.

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