For nets, it’s reality 101

'Survivor' clones, crime dramas dominate cautious fall slates

After yet another season of big-budget blow-ps and costly star failures, network programmers aren’t waiting until midseason to take refuge in reality.

Instead, webheads are putting their unscripted entertainment series front and center.

At last week’s annual upfront presentations to advertisers, some of the loudest cheers came for shows like “The Amazing Race,” a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced actioner CBS topper Leslie Moonves calls “‘Survivor’ on speed.”

The nonfiction genre, once derided as “schlock TV,” has grown up, gaining a sort of acceptance it’s never had before.

Just a few years ago, webheads hid shows like “Temptation Island” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” saving such fare for later when their comedies and dramas flopped. Now, nets are literally being upfront about their plans to get real.

A quick glance of the new skeds shows that each of the Big Four boast at least two hours of non-fiction entertainment programming– an unprecedented explosion of the form. The WB weblet, which built its brand on teen angst dramas, will bow three reality shows next fall.

Even NBC — slow to get into the reality genre — has scheduled two weekly episodes of “The Weakest Link,” the fast-aced quizzer hosted by sneering host Anne Robinson. Peacock execs had hoped to avoid multiple runs of the show, but ultimately found the lure of cheap ratings too strong to ignore.

“Given how successful it’s been for us on Mondays, I chickened out and decided we should take advantage of its strong success now,” NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker says.

Madison Ave. even seems caught up in the trend.

While certain nonfiction fare (think “Police Videos”) is a tough sell for advertisers, shows like “Survivor” are starting to draw premium ad rates because of the huge number of viewers who watch. Fox’s “Temptation Island,” once derided by advertisers as too over-the-top, is now seen as an ad magnet.

“Our New York sales department was bullish about getting this show on the fall schedule,” Fox TV Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow says.

As choppy waters threaten to capsize the network biz, the captains of primetime have set a play-it-safe course — and reality programming fits right into that cautious mix.Webheads know they can’t imitate the pirate programmers of HBO and other cablers, who steal headlines and buzz with cultural phenoms like “The Sopranos.”

So instead, the nets are programming more comfort food next season — from sinful desserts like “Temptation Island” to the meat and potatoes of conventional, cost-efficient dramas from seasoned hands like Steven Bochco, Dick Wolf and John Wells.

While no one will confuse the webs’ fast-food fare for the haute cuisine of HBO, the strategy is understandable: After all, more people patronize McDonald’s than Le Cirque.

Among the nets’ easy to follow recipes for next season:

  • With program costs escalating and the ad market soft, nets are looking to get the most bang from the least expensive schedule possible.

    ABC and NBC are both getting rid of their original movie nights, while CBS has cut back to just one per week. Telepics aren’t cheap, and lately, viewers have rejected almost everything the nets have thrown at them.

    And Fox will save a nice chunk of change by airing repeat comedies Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

  • Strong women will be all over primetime — as will shows that appeal to them.

    The success of “Dark Angel” and “Judging Amy” proves female auds respond to skeins where women rule. Next season, primetime will be filled with tough broads.

    The ABC actioner “Alias” is being called “La Femme Felicity” for its butt-kicking college student star. The WB has Reba McEntire as a trimmed-down Roseanne. And ABC’s got Kim Delaney as a no-nonsense lawyer in “Philly.”

  • Learning the lesson that auds can digest only so much new programming at once, nets are inching toward a year-round scheduling strategy.

Next season, some of the webs’ biggest guns won’t be rolled out until January or later, as execs seek to protect thier best assets from the fall rush.

Nets have found it easier to take a go-slow approach to next season now that they’ve dodged the writers’ strike bullet.

“People were forced to plan earlier because of the strike,” says Paramount TV Group chair Kerry McCluggage. “That may have moved up the decision-making process.”

The webs “definitely had richer coffers” going into fall, says Touchstone TV exec VP Steve McPherson. “A lot of people had banked shows, developed more strike-free programming and held stuff in reserve that they would have otherwise premiered this season.”

Extra prep pays off

All this extra prep has given nets the luxury of saving the good stuff for later — and testing out new ways to roll out series throughout the year.

The so-called “wheel” concept, for example, has gained in popularity as nets try to make midseason an offensive strategy rather than a defensive afterthought.

Inspired by ABC’s decision a few years ago to split “NYPD Blue’s” time period with other series, several nets have announced plans to juggle time periods rather than air repeats.

Fox will air the 20th drama “Emma Brody” in “Ally McBeal’s” time period when that show takes a rest next March; the WB will sub the new Kevin Williamson drama “Glory Days” on Wednesdays this winter when “Felicity” takes a break.

“We have too many choices to leave an entire half of a season in repeats (by only programming one show in a slot),” says Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman.

While there’s still more glamour attached to being a fall player, recent history suggests midseason skeins particularly comedies often have a cleaner shot at success.

That’s certainly the case at Fox and ABC.

Almost all of the former net’s laff hits (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “Titus,” “The Simpsons”) have bowed in the winter or spring. And while the Alphabet’s fall 2000 offerings all tanked, the quartet of shows it introduced in early 2001 will all be back for second seasons.

Fox is sticking to the midseason playbook this season: Two of its brightest comedy hopes (“Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” “Greg the Bunny”) won’t emerge until later in the year.

As two of the more edgier entries for next season, Fox felt the laffers needed to be introduced in a less cluttered environment so that viewers had enough time to understand the skeins’ less-traditional formats.

Playing it safe

Avoiding the autumn clutter may be one reason net execs also played it safe by not moving “Malcolm in the Middle” from Sundays to Wednesdays, or shifting soph comedy “Grounded for Life” into an anchor position.

Instead, Fox made the decision to start its new four-comedy Wednesday with repeats of its veteran laff hits such as “That ’70s Show” and “The Simpsons.”

In addition to the cost savings, the move speaks to the low-risk vibe coming from broadcast row: Why risk putting a new show in a tough time period when repeats of proven successes will likely generate decent ratings and ad dollars?

“It’s a game in which you’re playing the odds,” says Fox TV ntertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow. “We could have slid ‘Grounded’ to 8, but we didn’t want to risk it. For us, it’s a no-brainer.”

Right now, most webs seem unwilling to try much comedy at all.

Only two of last fall’s frosh network laffers will be back next season.

NBC’s new lineup boasts just eight comedies, the fewest yuks slots on a Peacock fall sked since the early ’80s pre- “Cosby” era. And for some reason, celeb chef Emeril Lagasse is getting his own sitcom.

There’s some cause for hope, though.

Nets are more willing than ever to try single camera comedies, a form that lends itself to more sophisticated laughs. And ABC, Fox and the WB are all trying hard to revive the family laffer — a genre that seemed completely dead a couple of years ago.

With comedy still in crisis, drama remains primetime’s dominant genre. Next season will see 45 hours of drama programming vs. exactly half as many hours of yuks.

“The scripted drama represents the cornerstone of every network,” Grushow says.

Still, the networks have, for the most part, played it safe even in the hour-long field.

Challenging dramas, always a tough sell for viewers, are out. Bouyed by the success of thrillers like “C.S.I.,” nets are aiming for blue sky next season.

This season the Alphabet web has the young spy thriller “Alias,” dubbed by some as “La Femme Felicity,” and the John Stamos actioner “Thieves,” which is a “Moonlighting” redux.

“There’s a lightness and youth appeal that we have not had on this network in a very long time,” says ABC Entertainment TV Group co-chair Lloyd Braun.

NBC’s also taking the meat-and-potatoes approach, adding the easy-to-promote latest installment of “Law & Order” (subtitled “Criminal Intent”) as well as the “CSI”-inspired “Crossing Jordan” and its own young spy thriller, “UC: Undercover.”

Drama execs can rest a little easier this fall: Unlike comedies — a number of which are already believed to be on the chopping block before the season even begins — the nets are showing more patience on dramas that show even the faintest sign of long-term appeal.

“Once and Again,” “Ed” and “Family Law” are all highly touted by their respective webs, despite less than stellar numbers. But because those series are still OK performers, web execs figure it’s better to keep those shows going than risk putting on something even worse.