Sunny season sans scripts

Hoping to see 'Stars' again, nets ready to ride reality wave

Get ready for a summertime reality rumble.

In one corner, the nets are bringing back several warm-weather veterans that have either proved their ability to draw auds (“Big Brother,” “Last Comic Standing”) or seem poised to break out (“Rock Star,” “So You Think You Can Dance”).

In the other corner: a slew of newcomers that execs are praying will turn into this year’s version of “Dancing

With the Stars” or “American Idol.” Potential players range from competition-based skeins such as “America’s Got Talent” and “Operacion triunfo” (renamed last week as “The One: Making a Music Star”) to docusoaps like “Tuesday Night Book Club.”

Webheads always hope for solid ratings from summer skeins. After all, they need to promote their new fall shows — and it’s a lot easier to raise awareness for frosh shows if your summer sked is doing well.

But this year, the pressure’s on for nets to come up with some unscripted hits. With established reality shows starting to shows signs of age, execs need to start refilling the unscripted pipeline, and summer is the perfect breeding ground.

“Summer’s a tremendous opportunity to launch reality shows, as we saw last year with ‘Dancing With the Stars,'” says ABC exec veepee Jeff Bader. “Even with all the original programming that’s on this summer, there’s still less competition.”

And, says CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl, “If a summer show gets traction, you’ve got it in your back pocket for midseason.”

The big question is whether any of this year’s contenders has breakout potential. Much of the new reality fare on tap this summer feels a bit familiar.

NBC’s “Treasure Hunters,” for example, feels like a “Da Vinci Code”-kissed take on “The Amazing Race,” while ABC’s “The One” — based on a Spanish format — has more than a few things in common with “American Idol.”

NBC reality czar Craig Plestis says the familiar feel of so many reality shows has to do with nets not wanting to take too big of a gamble.

“It comes down to ratings,” he says. “Nobody wants to take the chance of having a big disappointment, so there’s an inclination to play it safe.”

Plestis maintains the Peacock actually is rolling the dice this summer, pointing to the Simon Cowell-produced variety skein “America’s Got Talent.”

“The same way NBC took a chances with gameshows, I think we’re taking a chance” with Cowell’s show, Plestis says.

Indeed, NBC’s decision to launch “Deal or No Deal” as a five-night-a-week event last December was the type of gutsy move you don’t see other nets making quite as often these days.

That’s because ABC, CBS and Fox are currently in a virtual dead heat for young adult supremacy. One false move could be disastrous for them.

But the Peacock just wrapped in second consecutive season in fourth place. Like ABC circa “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and even CBS around the time of “Survivor,” NBC has little to lose by taking a risk on reality.

While having Cowell and the producers of “American Idol” onboard means “Talent” is hardly an underdog, the premise of the show — a variety of random acts vie for a million-dollar prize — hardly makes it a sure thing. Nonetheless, NBC plans to devote up to 90 minutes a week to the show this summer, and has already announced plans for a second season in January.

Plestis also thinks “Treasure Hunters,” despite its “Race”-like qualities, could be a breakout. Show is from exec producer Brian Grazer, and the net has invested heavily in the production to ensure an almost filmlike feel to the skein.

“It’s the highest-testing reality show we’ve ever had on the network,” Plestis says.

NBC is hardly the only innovator this summer.

CBS is plunging into the gameshow market with the retro-feel “Gameshow Marathon.” Based on a Blighty format, the Ricki Lake-hosted show has celebs playing classic games from “Card Sharks” to “Family Feud.”

Eye is also launching first docusoap “Tuesday Night Book Club” that’s a sort of “Laguna Beach” for adults.

Fox hasn’t yet announced any new summer reality skeins, choosing so far to focus on building returning shows “Hell’s Kitchen” and “So You Think You Can Dance” into hits.

“What we’re trying to say is, if you really believe summer is a part of the whole season, what’s wrong with making returning reality shows a part of your summer schedule?” asks Fox exec VP Preston Beckman.

As for ABC, the net that struck gold last summer with “Stars” has a bumper crop of reality skeins waiting on the bench, though it’s not yet clear when they’ll launch.

One thing’s for sure: As with scripted shows, reality hits are often born from modest expectations.

“At this point last year, ‘Dancing With the Stars’ was probably considered one the smaller ideas out there,” Bader says.

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