Zeitgeist probed for next big reality hit

After changing TV forever, what is unscripted's encore?

With its high production values, competitive spirit and ability to transform regular people into stars, CBS’ “Survivor” premiered in 2000 unlike any unscripted entertainment of the past, be it 1948’s prank-driven “Candid Camera,” Fox’s criminals-busting “Cops,” MTV’s serialized doc “The Real World” and even ABC’s wildly popular 1999 gameshow “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which set the stage for unscripted’s return to primetime this decade.

The success of “Survivor” opened the door for competition-based reality — whether the prize was money, a recording contract or a bachelor — and also for the docusoaps and celeb-reality shows that now pack broadcast and many cable network schedules. Reality programming has managed to become as much of a television staple as drama and comedy, even if it’s often regarded as a guilty pleasure.

“I’m not even sure that now people think of ‘Dancing With the Stars’ or ‘American Idol’ as reality shows,” says John Saade, who, along with Vicki Dummer, co-heads ABC Entertainment Group’s alternative series, specials and latenight. “Most of the big ones have become sort of invisible. They’re just television.”

Reality TV is typically less expensive to produce than a scripted series and sometimes more of a ratings success (look no further than the network top 10, which is topped by Fox’s “Idol” and regularly includes ABC’s “Dancing”). Add to that the seemingly endless appeal of watching people react to heightened situations in front of the camera — even if those people happen to be famous or ridiculously rich “Real Housewives” of one town or another — and those on the front lines agree that the genre, once thought to be a flash in the pan, is here to stay.

“The networks would not be surviving without reality TV,” says Fox alternative prexy Mike Darnell, who, long before “Idol,” championed unscripted television with a series of outlandish but ratings-winning specials like “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction” and “Breaking the Magicians’ Code.”

“Reality shows have become of vital importance,” he says.

But also of vital importance is charting the future course of unscripted TV. “It’s getting harder (because) the public is becoming smarter,” says Tyra Banks, the creator and host of the CW’s long-running “America’s Next Top Model.”

The search for the Next Big Idea is on.

“All of the top nonfiction producers — and we all know each other — are wondering what that will be, and I’m sure we’re all working furiously to come up with it,” “Survivor” exec producer Mark Burnett says.

In his opinion, catching lightning in a bottle, like he did with “Survivor” and later NBC’s “The Apprentice,” comes down to what’s in the zeitgeist.

“And is this something people can in some way relate to?” he continues. “Then you need to combine that with a high level of execution because the networks are paying a lot of money and expecting great results.”

When “The Bachelor” exec producer Mike Fleiss is “hopeful and optimistic,” he believes creativity still counts in the genre. “But when I’m jaded and frustrated,” he says, “I think, ‘Well, you’ve got to wait for some people like Jon and Kate to ruin the lives of eight young people in order to get great ratings.”

Broadcast networks are under particularly high pressure to find shows that appeal to a mass audience or, as ABC’s Dummer puts it, shows that “the family can enjoy together that also play to ABC’s strength with women.”

Conversely, Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC U women and lifestyle networks, believes that the key to success in cable lies in continuing to specialize within your branded niche. For Bravo, home to the critically acclaimed “Top Chef,” that means shows that she says “revolve around energy, bravado, expertise and excellence in a career.”

Banks believes partnerships are more vital than ever. “Product placement and integration is going to make or break some businesses,” she asserts. “I’m really proud that our major ‘Top Model’ partners have stuck with us.”

In the end, and for all of their experience and expertise, “no one really knows where reality is going,” Darnell admits. “But whatever (the next big show) is, there will be 40 just like it within six months. That you can guarantee.”

Kate Hahn and Jerry Rice contributed to this story.

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