Reality TV bites this summer

Too many shows, too little time

Webheads who are counting on reality shows to get them through a possible strike might want to take another look at this summer’s ratings.

Sure, old faves such as “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Big Brother” continue to pull in solid Nielsens, lessening the pain associated with ever-dwindling ratings for the nets’ drama repeats. But with summer coming to a close, it looks doubtful that the season will have brought even one new reality show that could be considered a game-changer (think “Dancing with the Stars”) or even a modest success (“America’s Got Talent”).

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

ABC once again unveiled more new summer reality shows than any network: “Fat March,” “The Ex-Wives Club,” “The Next Best Thing,” “Fast Cars and Superstars,” “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” “Set For Life,” “National Bingo Night” and “Just for Laughs.” Only “Laughs” showed a real pulse, and it’s a hidden-camera clip show, not a reality competition.

Ditto NBC’s “The Singing Bee” and Fox’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” which are variety gameshows that did OK. After debuting near the top of the charts, both shows have cooled off in the ratings.

CBS and Fox shelled out big bucks for new shows from reality powerhouse Mark Burnett. Eye’s “Pirate Master” was pulled midrun due to low ratings, while Fox cut back “On the Lot” to just once a week (despite the presence of Steven Spielberg as exec producer).

The good news is it’s still a lot cheaper to flop with reality than with scripted shows. Some of the summer’s mediocre unscripted shows performed a bit better than repeats of dramas (particularly serialized shows).

It’s also worth noting that reality’s headaches are partly perceptual. In years past, reality had a better success rate than traditional fare; now, with a glut of programming, the failure rate in the genre is approaching that of scripted shows.

Nets certainly aren’t giving up on the genre. This fall, the five broadcast nets will program a record 18½ hours of reality programming.

And waiting in the wings are some of the nets’ best bets: “Kid Nation” on the CBS fall sked, and “Oprah’s Big Give,” on tap for ABC at midseason.

Still, the summer slowdown is symptomatic of larger problems plaguing the reality genre. Among the woes:

  • There are too many reality shows. Unscripted skeins started out as alternatives to dramas and comedies, with auds responding well to the notion of programming with real stakes (win $1 million! find true love!).

Now, every cable network with a pulse has at least one signature unscripted skein, making “reality” the small screen’s dominant form of programming.

But as the unscripted virus has spread throughout the TV universe, “It’s harder to stand out in the mix of all the reality shows out there,” says NBC alternative programming guru Craig Plestis.

  • … and they all look alike. Copycatting is nothing new in TV, but the lack of imagination in the reality world is stunning.

The early summer successes of the reality era were all groundbreaking shows, from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” to “Survivor” to “American Idol.” Networks and producers demonstrated bold thinking, and auds rewarded them.

But rather than reinvent the genre this summer, Burnett copied himself with “Pirate Master.” (He fared much better with the late-spring quizzer “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” one of the year’s biggest unscripted successes.)

NBC’s biggest new show this summer was “Age of Love,” which was really just the 150th take on “The Bachelor.” ABC’s attempts to capture the feel-good “magic” of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has resulted in a string of failures.

No reality subgenre has grown more tired, however, most notably on cable, than so-called “celebreality” skeins.

When MTV introduced “The Osbournes,” the idea of seeing a semi-famous person dealing with the mundane realities of life was innovative.

Now, just about anyone with a modicum of fame seems to have a reality show. This summer has seen new efforts toplined by Paula Abdul, Victoria Beckham, Scott Baio, Brett Michaels of Poison, 1980s film duo Corey Feldman & Corey Haim and, later this month, hip hop mogulette Kimora Simmons.

Problem is, viewers have grown tired of the concept, as evidenced by the disappointing numbers generated by shows such as Abdul’s and Beckham’s.

  • Reality is eating its own, while cable has turned up the scripted heat. Summer used to be a great time for nets to try out reality show ideas. Five years ago, repeats dominated most timeslots, and only a few cablers were in the series game.

Now, nearly every net has a reality franchise it can trot out in the summer. And some of those skeins — “Big Brother,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” — air at least twice a week.

Likewise, this summer has seen a flood of original scripted skeins and limited series on cable nets. For the first time, the number of new summer scripted shows on cable is higher than the number of unscripted skeins on broadcast.

“There’s much more competition in the summer than there’s ever been,” Plestis says.

Reality royalty such as Burnett and recently upped Fox alternative entertainment prexy Mike Darnell concede the genre’s woes, but insist the problems are no different than the hardships facing scripted series.

“How many new dramas worked in the last season? How many comedies?” Burnett asks. “Maybe three or four? And that’s for the entire season. In the summer, (viewership) levels are down, and I don’t think the networks expect most of these shows to break out.”

Darnell concedes that newly launched “traditional reality shows” that feature competitions “are suffering right now.” But he quickly adds that other kinds of alternative shows — like the singing skeins — are finding traction with auds.

“I think it all works in cycles,” he says. “The audience gets tired when there are too many shows in a genre. So right now, gameshows and variety shows are working. Soon, we’ll have to move on to another genre.”

Burnett believes nets should keep trying to find new reality hits in the summer, despite the increasing odds against success.

“Without summer, there wouldn’t have been a ‘Survivor’ or ‘American Idol,’ ” he says. “And if you’re a network, you still have a better chance of making money with a reality show than with a drama.”

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