Webs face new reality

Maturing genre's steady stream of new watercooler hits runs dry

After five years of nearly nonstop passion, the once-torrid love affair between network execs and reality TV has seems to have finally cooled off.

There hasn’t been a bona fide reality phenom since “The Apprentice” bolted onto the scene in early 2004. And the unscripted successes of the last few years — “Dancing With the Stars,” “Deal or No Deal”– feel more like variety or game shows rather than reality.

“The business has changed completely in the last year,” says Eric Schotz, head of unscripted factory LMNO Prods. “There’s been an adjustment in the market.”

Indeed, while there have been some solid unscripted successes of late — from the aforementioned “Dancing” to NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” — the last year has been relatively quiet on the reality front.

That’s not to say reality is “dead,” as its critics are always rushing to declare. Quite the opposite: The genre is still thriving, as evidenced by the nearly 40 million folks who tuned in last month to watch Taylor Hicks get crowned “American Idol.”

What’s changed is that, rather than spark to some sexy young thing, viewers seem to be rediscovering their old faves.

In its fifth season, Fox’s “American Idol” defied logic by scoring double-digit ratings gains vs. year-ago numbers. UPN’s sixth season of “America’s Next Top Model” had its best premiere numbers and second-best overall numbers.

Over at ABC, “The Bachelor” returned from hiatus this year and significantly improved the Alphabet’s Monday ratings.

And while CBS’s “Survivor” is showing a bit of Nielsen slippage, it still dominates its 8 p.m. Thursday slot — and just as importantly, remains a strong part of the zeitgeist.

ABC alternative topper Andrea Wong argues that reality’s not in a rut. It’s just grown up.

“I think reality has just matured,” Wong explains. “It’s a genre like comedy and drama now. You’ll have cycles where there’s great creative inspiration and other times when the genre can get into a creative slump.”

Consider Fox. To producers selling programs, it might seem like the net’s reality guru, Mike Darnell, has slowed his output. Other than “Unanimous” and “Skating With Celebrities,” Fox didn’t launch any new reality skeins this past season.

But what’s really happened is that Fox is simply sticking by reality shows longer.

“Nanny 911” and “Trading Spouses” have both been renewed for the fall, while for the first time ever, Fox has two summer reality shows coming back for sophomore seasons –“So You Think You Can Dance” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Oh, and then there’s “American Idol,” which occupies 45 hours of sked space per season — the equivalent of five or six reality shows. “The illusion is that we’re not picking up as much, but the fact is that we’ve got more success,” Darnell says.

There’s also much more competition for eyeballs. In addition to the dozen or so network reality shows, cablers program hundreds of hours of unscripted skeins each season. A genre once limited to a few nets like MTV and TLC is now thriving all over the dial.

“You have a maturing genre that will have to accept more midlevel successes because there are so many shows flooding the universe,” Darnell says. “Things that stuck out before don’t stick out as much anymore because we’ve glutted the market. People are more cynical.”

Indeed, reality finds itself in the same place comedy was a few years ago.

The stunning success of NBC’s “Friends” resulted in a slew of copycat laffers geared toward young-adult viewers. Rather than simply focus on good ideas, webheads became obsessed with developing shows that felt “young.”

The result? Lots and lots of failure as viewers grew tired of cheap knockoffs. Execs are loath to admit it, but there’s evidence the same thing is happening to reality shows — particularly in cable.

Over the next two months, for example, both NBC and ABC will unveil music-themed programs not unlike “American Idol.” Even Fox is ripping itself off with “Duets,” a singing competish that pairs stars and civilians.

“Everyone says they don’t want anything that’s derivative, and then they buy eight Simon Cowell shows that are derivative,” Schotz says.

Mark Burnett, who helped launch the current reality boom with “Survivor,” agrees there are too many derivative shows. But he’s not so certain the supposed reality slowdown is such a bad thing.

“We should be held to the same high standards (as sitcoms and dramas),” Burnett says. “Just because it’s reality doesn’t mean you get a free pass. This will force people to do better work.”

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