Copycats use up nine lives

It's the dog days of summer for reality ratings

The severe case of sequelitis that’s soured the summer moviegoing season has struck the small screen — and the results have proven to be almost as deadly.

Like their motion picture brethren, webheads decided to devote much of their programming energy this summer to bowing new offshoots of past reality smashes. It’s almost impossible to turn on a Big Four broadcast net now without stumbling upon a clone of previous hits such as “American Idol,” “The Bachelor” and “Big Brother.”

Not surprisingly, viewers are greeting these copycats with giant yawns.

While overall viewership of broadcast webs is up vs. a year ago — chalk it up to less repeats than ever — the nets have yet to yield anything close to a breakout hit this summer. That’s despite the fact that nearly twice as many new reality skeins have bowed compared to a year ago.

The bottom line: For the first time since “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” burst onto the pop culture scene in August 1999, this could be the first summer network TV has failed to produce a game-changing hit show.

After all, 2000 saw the rise of “Survivor,” while 2001 brought “Fear Factor” (and during the regular season, “The Bachelor.”) Last year, Fox birthed “American Idol.”

“Everyone’s looking backward and copying ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘American Idol.’ It’s pretty pathetic,” says “Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss.

Fleiss believes networks and producers wrongly assumed viewers were so in love with reality shows, just about anything without a script had a shot at an audience.

“But viewers are rejecting anything that feels derivative,” he says. “They don’t like reality just because it’s reality. They like reality shows because they’re innovative and different.”

HBO topper Chris Albrecht says webheads, whether pursuing scripted or unscripted hits, make a fatal mistake when they try to duplicate rather than innovate.

“It’s easy to replicate the steps (toward making a hit show),” he says. “It’s much harder to replicate the magic that goes into making a success.”

It’s not as if the nets couldn’t have seen this coming.

“Every time there’s a successful trend in television, there’s an onslaught of copycats,” says 20th Century Fox TV topper Dana Walden. “That ends up diluting the genre, and it goes away to the sidelines until it can be successfully reinvented again.”

Indeed, in the case of NBC, network execs make no secret of the fact that part of their strategy this summer was to flood the market with knockoff reality shows. Peacock will roll out nearly a dozen reality skeins by next month, with only one — “The Restaurant”– repping a truly original conceit.

“Part of our strategy was to tire people of shows like ‘Joe Millionaire,'” says NBC alternative titan Jeff Gaspin, whose “For Love or Money” and “Average Joe” are clear takeoffs on “Millionaire” — which itself is a twist on “The Bachelor.”

Of course, NBC was also hoping to crank out a “Joe”-size hit of its own this summer, something that hasn’t yet happened (despite a very strong finish for the first installment of “Love or Money.”)

Gaspin doesn’t believe ideas have to be brand new to yield big ratings.

” ‘Joe Millionaire’ was basically ‘The Bachelor’ with a tiny twist that turned out to be a 21 rating,” he says. “And ‘American Idol’ wasn’t an original idea. ‘Pop Stars’ and ‘Making the Band’ were already on.”

That might explain the early success of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the new “make-better” skein that premiered to record ratings last week on Bravo, the NBC-owned cabler overseen by Gaspin. It has elements of “Extreme Makeover” and “Trading Spaces,” but it feels like nothing else on TV.

“The p.c. line is to say, ‘Let’s always innovate’… (but) a show doesn’t have to be completely original to work,” he says. “It just has to have a spark behind it that galvanizes the population.”

And while NBC (or for that matter, any other net) might have wanted to land a hit during the warm weather months — and ratings for the top shows are down year-to-year — webheads aren’t sweating the sizzle-lean summer.

The Peacock, CBS and Fox are all doing just fine this summer vs. last, according to Nielsen. Even ABC, which decided on a risky strategy of mostly foregoing original fare to serve up extra repeats of its sitcoms, is doing okay — if not spectacular — numbers this summer, indicating this may have been the best possible summer for the net to sit out the reality wars.

Cable’s usual summer ratings gains seemed to have been halted. Indeed, past summer successes such as “Monk” and “Sex and the City” are off year-to-year.

Even more importantly, execs take a certain solace in their sort of collective failure.

“You always want to get a hit, but the next best thing is when nobody else has a big hit, either,” says one veteran network programmer.

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