B’casters keep it real this summer

Unscripted skeins shows genre still has plenty of spunk

Five years after “Survivor” ushered in the modern era of reality TV, the nets are once again finding summertime a fertile field for growing new unscripted hits.

Nothing that’s bowed in June comes close to matching the mega-phenom level attained by the first season of Mark Burnett’s original desert-island drama. But in the wake of a 2004-05 regular season dominated by scripted hits, the early summer numbers for unscripted skeins shows the genre’s still got plenty of spunk left — especially if the idea’s original:

  • ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” is the unquestioned smash of the summer season to date. It’s been TV’s No. 1 entertainment show for the past two weeks, and — almost as importantly — the media buzz surrounding the skein is building daily.

    The clearest sign it’s a hit? The clones are coming fast and furious, from Fox’s “Skating With Celebrities” to NBC’s “I’m a Celebrity but I Want to Be a Pop Star.” And Fox’s months-in-the-works “Celebrity Idol” is now on the fast track.

  • Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” has been heating up ratings on Monday, particularly among viewers 18-34. While there’s a definite “Apprentice”-like quality to the restaurant competish, chef Gordon Ramsey is a fresh personality unlike any other reality star.

  • The WB, after years of striking out on the unscripted front, has captured megabuzz and big-for-the-Frog ratings with “Beauty and the Geek.”

  • NBC’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” has had a tougher road in the ratings, losing viewers each of the first three weeks it aired. But it bowed to big numbers, and is still the top-rated show on the woebegotten Peacock. A follow-up seems inevitable.

  • With virtually no fanfare, “Fire Me … Please!” has done surprisingly well for CBS on Tuesday nights. While it owes a lot to “Candid Camera,” the U.K. import’s unassuming, non-nasty play for laughs seems to have resonated with viewers.

ABC alternative topper Andrea Wong says viewers “are starved for original programming” during the summer, so that it’s not surprising some skeins are sparking with auds. Even so, she says the rules for launching a reality hit aren’t any different in the summer.

“It’s all about finding that thing that resonates with people and compels them to tune in every week,” she says. “It could be the star, it could be the arena or it could be the idea.”

When the Big Six announced their fall skeds last month, some wags were quick to point to the paucity of new unscripted shows as a sign the genre may had peaked. But Fox reality guru Mike Darnell says such an analysis overlooks some fundamentals about nonfiction programming.

“What they’re missing is the fact that reality is so broad,” he says. “It’s not narrow like sitcoms or dramas. Reality covers a dozen different forms, from variety to gameshows to the ‘Survivors’ of the world. There’s almost a reinvention every six months.”

But as the unscripted genre matures, there’s mounting evidence viewers are becoming more selective.

Indeed, June has also seen a number of high-profile reality flops, from the Eye’s much-hyped “The Cut” (Tommy Hilfiger doing the Donald) to NBC’s “I Want to Be a Hilton” (Kathy Hilton doing the Donald).

Even the collective firepower of Steve Martin and Carsey-Werner, along with solid reviews, couldn’t get auds to sample the good-for-you “The Scholar.”

Still, the nets aren’t letting a few failures deter them.

In addition to returning faves like “Big Brother,” July and August will bring a slew of new unscripted skeins. Among the likely hits: Burnett’s “Rock Star: INXS” and the destined-to-be-talked about “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”

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