Unscripted bows dealt a reality check

Hourlong dramas claim season's top rookie rankings in adults 18-49

HOLLYWOOD — A record 17 new unscripted skeins have bowed on broadcast television alone this season, but quantity hasn’t meant quality in the Nielsens.

If anything, the sheer number of aspiring reality entries has had a cooling effect on the genre: Viewers are largely tuning them out at the same time they cling ever tighter to old faves like CBS’ “Survivor” and Fox’s “American Idol.”

Last week NBC boxing series “The Contender” got off to a predictably modest start while the WB wannabe actress skein “The Starlet” turned in a surprisingly dead-on-arrival perf. These shows join a long list of modestly received new unscripted series, each developed when seemingly any well-conceived reality show had a good shot at becoming a hit.

Sure, several solid utility players have emerged from this season’s batch, but there are no ratings game-changers, like last season’s “The Apprentice” and “Average Joe” on NBC or even Fox’s limited-run farce “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”

Instead, it’s clearly been drama’s season, with the hourlong form claiming the season’s top five rookie rankings in adults 18-49: “Desperate Housewives” (ABC), “Lost” (ABC), “Medium” (NBC), “CSI: NY” (CBS) and “Boston Legal” (ABC).

Three new unscripted series show up in the bottom half of the season’s top 10 (NBC’s “Biggest Loser” and ABC’s “Supernanny” and “Wife Swap”), along with the lone comedy (NBC’s “Joey”).

At the same time, two of the giants of the genre — ABC’s “The Bachelor” and NBC’s “Fear Factor” — are looking tired and hemorrhaging in the ratings.

What didn’t work this season were those, like CBS’ “The Will” and Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss,” that derived much of their conflict from deceiving contestants. There were also a couple of off-brand duds like “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search” on NBC and “Wickedly Perfect” on CBS that never had a chance.

Aspirational and inspirational programs are on the rise, most notably ABC’s second-season Sunday smash “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” This skein, in which designers and workmen renovate homes for those in need, has thrived in an hour where CBS’ uplifting drama “Touched by an Angel” thrived for years.

Even Fox, which in years past years could be counted on for some top-secret “gotcha” reality series, has gone soft: Its best results have come with “Nanny 911” and “Trading Spouses” — not “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” or “Rebel Billionaire.”

NBC’s “Biggest Loser,” whose 4.3 rating in adults 18-49 makes it the highest rated of the season’s new reality shows, was a surprise hit to many, but maybe it shouldn’t have been.

It combines a relatable premise (Who can lose the most weight?) with heart-tugging emotional elements and the elimination component that has powered nearly every reality smash.

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