Five years after the summer launch of “Survivor” ignited the reality TV boom, the networks are once again looking to the warm weather months to usher in the next big unscripted hit.
While nonfiction remains a strong force in primetime, the genre suffered through some serious growing pains during the 2004-’05 season. A glut of copycat skeins, ill-conceived ideas and bad scheduling resulted in a slew of unscripted failures, while the season’s two top-rated newcomers (“Biggest Loser” and “Nanny 911”) were modest successes at best.
Now, after trying to use reality fare to fill holes during the regular season, the nets seemed to have come to their senses and remembered that it’s easier for such shows — “American Idol,” “Big Brother” — to catch on with auds when they’re not competing against big scripted guns.
“Summer is a time when you can try things that might be a little risky, might be a little high concept,” says ABC exec VP Jeff Bader. “There’s less downside and more opportunity.”
To that end, the broadcast networks will unleash more than a dozen fresh nonfiction skeins over the next three months — all in the hope that one or two of the newcomers turns out to be a game-changer.
Interestingly, every network but the WB is planning to take a stab at the music or dance genre including Fox, which already boasts the tune titan “American Idol.”
ABC will step out first, premiering “Dancing With the Stars” on June 1. A remake of U.K. hit “Strictly Come Dancing,” the show is a cross between “Idol” and “Dance Fever,” in which B-list celebs pair up with professional ballroom dancers in order to compete on the dance floor. Fox has a similar skein in the works, “So You Think You Can Dance” that’s being produced by the team behind “Idol.”
On June2, the beat goes on when NBC imports another Brit success, “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” It’s a sort of second-chance “Idol” in which former chart toppers try to reconnect with fans by covering current hits.
CBS might just have the biggest gun of the summer, however, with the Mark Burnett-produced “Rock Star.” Skein’s set up is very much like “Idol,” but with a couple of key twists, says showrunner David Goffin.
“It cares about story, character and rock ‘n’ roll,” he explains, adding that the show has had tremendous success licensing songs from big rock acts, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Nirvana, the Killers and R.E.M.
Eye’s sister web, UPN, is expected to use the summer months to launch “R U the Girl?” It’s a competition-based show toplined by the two members of TLC.
Other major reality trends for the summer include:
- More feel-good, change-your-life skeins similar to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” ABC has “Brat Camp,” “The Scholar” and “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” while NBC will bring back “Biggest Loser.” Fox is planning a program that shows viewers how they can shave years off their lives.
- Success of “The Simple Life” has spawned more unscripted comedies, including CBS’ “Fire Me, Please,” the WB’s “Beauty and the Geek,” and NBC’s “Tommy Lee Goes to College” and “Meet Mr. Mom.”
- As happens during the regular season with scripted shows, look for nets to use established reality hits to help launch newcomers, scheduling entire blocks of unscripted programming. ABC will use repeats of “Supernanny,” for example, to bring auds to “Dancing With the Stars,” while CBS will once again ask “Big Brother” to deliver viewers to a new show (in this case, “Rock Star.”)
“If you look back at last summer, I don’t think there’s any question ‘The Amazing Race’ was helped by having a compatible lead-in,” says CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl, who last year used “Big Brother” to breathe new life into “Race.”
- Shows will be spread out throughout summer. In past years, nets have concentrated reality fare later in the season. This year, most nets will kick off programming within a week or two of the end of May sweeps.
“The important thing is to treat all three months seriously,” says NBC scheduling czar Mitch Metcalf. “We want to roll out (Peacock’s summer shows) in a logical way and not put everything on too early or too late.”
While some reality TV insiders are happy to see the nets take big summer chances again, there is a downside to all of this activity — too much competition.
“The trouble with summer now is trying to find a timeslot where there isn’t some big reality show,” Bader says.