Supersized shows have big impact on schedules
Here’s what network execs were crowing about after one week of the new TV season: The big opens for rookies like “Modern Family” and returnees such as “NCIS.”Here’s what they weren’t rushing to talk about: The big drops felt by reality skeins such as “Dancing with the Stars.” Despite strong ratings for new scripted fare this fall, overall numbers are down for the nets. And part of that is because primetime’s reality show pack is aging, and just about all of them are well past their peak. If a lion’s share of scripted series are down as well, why is reality getting more than its fair share of the blame? Part of it has to do with the tremendous footprint shows like these reality franchises have on the primetime sked. When a scripted show starts to weaken, it reps just one hour in need of a little TLC. But when a reality series begins to crack, it’s a much bigger problem. The networks have filled their primetime skeds with extended hours of their top reality franchises — and when a franchise begins to fade, that might rep as many as three hours a week in need of fixing. It’s not a new phenomenon — ABC learned it the hard way earlier this decade, when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” collapsed, turning the Alphabet’s schedule into a Swiss cheese-like mess. But this time around, every network (save CBS) has at least one franchise that takes up multiple hours. During fall-TV’s premiere week, ABC was riding high thanks to the boffo launches of “Modern Family,” “Cougar Town” and “FlashForward.” Yet the net was still down from last year — and much of that could be blamed on “Dancing with the Stars,” which repped a full 23% of its sked. “One half-hour of ‘Modern Family’ isn’t going to help you if five hours of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ is starting to drop,” one rival says. Fox is serving three hours of “So You Think You Can Dance” starting this month — and “American Idol” will once again gobble up a big chunk of the network sked come January. Over at the Peacock, while most of the attention is focused on NBC’s over-reliance on “Jay Leno,” the net has long aired two-hour editions of “The Biggest Loser,” and has another two-hour “Celebrity Apprentice” set to return later this season. Only CBS has bucked the trend, preferring to saturate its schedule with like-minded procedurals instead of like-minded reality. “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” are still just one hour each. For the first time in years, auds seem more interested in a host of new comedies and dramas, as new series like “Glee,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Modern Family” give industry execs something to get excited about. It’s foolish to sound the death knell for the genre: When the dust settles this season, it will once again be reality TV that dictates the network scorecard. And more so than other genres, reality TV, because it’s a diverse genre, has proven to be incredibly resilient over the course of this decade. But the ratings are providing a wakeup call to network execs. Of the top 20 programs in adults 18-49 during premiere week, only one — ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” — was a reality skein. In truth, reality TV is mostly an afterthought for network execs at the start of the season. Fall has never been a breeding ground for new reality hits; rather, it’s the place where shows that launched big in the midseason or summer graduate to once their hit status is cemented. Only one franchise is entering the fall for the first time, Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” but that show can hardly be considered “new.” It’s long been held true that network sales teams would prefer to see mostly scripted fare on the fall skeds, as they still fetch a premium over unscripted wares (save the big vets like “Survivor”). And most network execs — and nearly everybody involved in the biz — would rather see more comedies, because of added income from syndication and other benefits. But when a reality show is a smash, the upside is enormous. “Idol” has made Fox a dominant demo player for much of the decade, even in years when its scripted stable was slumping. And it has fueled the News Corp. bottom line via albums, online music sales and concert tours. As a result, the nets can’t resist doubling down on their veteran reality titles. For one thing, the second hour of a reality show will do better than almost anything else you might put behind that show’s first hour. Economically, it’s also much cheaper to extend one hour into two, rather than pay for a fully different show that would likely fail anyway. Critics aren’t fans of reality series that milk every last drop. Usually they’re stuffed with moments of minutia, or those extra hours have morphed into ultra-padded variety shows (i.e., the “Stars” and “Idol” results shows). In this age of DVRs, viewers may gripe, but they’re also more willing to fast-forward through a two-hour episode in order to get to the good stuff. For the nets, it’s mission accomplished. Until it’s not. “When you devote a lot of hours to one asset, much depends on the performance of that asset,” one network reality exec says. “You get more of a cratering effect if the show declines… These shows take up more space than a normal show. When it drops, it has an impact not only on its own rating, but on everything around it.” In setting aside mega blocks of time for vet reality shows, the nets also depend on those unscripted series to not only be self-starters, but springboards for the rest of their schedule. But when these shows start to decline, those benefits are lessened. “There’s a real dependency on these things,” an exec says. “Reality shows are always utilized to boost everything up, to make those numbers higher and hope to launch a new series behind it.” The CW hoped “America’s Next Top Model” would boost the opening of frosh drama “The Beautiful Life: TBL” — but with “Top Model” eroding, fewer eyeballs were around to stay tuned and sample the new show. “TBL” was yanked after two weeks. Part of the ratings erosion might be the fact that, critics argue, reality shows are all starting to look alike, whether it’s the tremendous number of studio-based talent contests with three judges or the elimination competitions that promise the “most shocking (blank) ever!” “I do think people need to challenge themselves on what the next show should look like,” another alternative exec says. “Viewers will watch five different cop shows, yet they won’t watch five different dance shows.” “Hell’s Kitchen” exec producer Arthur Smith says he’s anxious to see the networks start to take more chances on new concepts. “If there’s a sameness to a concept or format it’s not going to break out,” says Smith, CEO of A. Smith and Co. “What the industry needs is the networks to take more risks, and producers need to take more chances. But that’s easy for me to say. It’s difficult to do on both sides.” For now, despite their declines, shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” “The Bachelor,” “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” still work, and continue to fill the slots that would otherwise go to new reality entries. Plus, as “The Bachelor” proved last year, these shows have a better shot at bouncing back to life – be it through new twists or better casting – than their scripted counterparts. Execs and producers alike bemoan the fact that there hasn’t been a breakout reality hit in several years (although they’ve come close, with “Wipeout” and, briefly, “Moment of Truth,” among others). Most of reality’s more recent hits have started out strong, but burned out quickly (see “Deal or No Deal”). But reality execs don’t buy the rationale that aging hits are blocking newcomers from coming in, noting that the same argument could be applied to dramas and comedies. ” ‘CSI’ is down, ‘Desperate Housewives’ is down,” one exec says. “Every show on TV is down, barring ‘NCIS’ and ‘Big Bang Theory.’ There’s been no real breakout hit on network TV in any genre over the last five years. There have been just as many successful new reality shows at the same level as anything else. NBC would be off the map without ‘Biggest Loser’ right now. These are staples of network TV. Without them, network TV would be dead.”
Want Entertainment News First? Sign up for Variety Alerts and Newsletters!