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Cable tries to get real

No 'Trading Spaces', USA show cancelled

It looked like a sure thing for the USA Network.

USA called it “House Wars,” billing it as an original primetime entry into the reality-show sweepstakes.

Reality shows were juicing up the primetime lineups of the broadcasters and — thanks to “Trading Spaces” — turning a somewhat low-visibility network called TLC into a Nielsen powerhouse.

The purpose of “House Wars” was to whip four different families into a frenzy, causing them to go at each other for 24 days as they compete to design a house that one of them will end up winning as the series builds to a climax in its eighth episode.

Within three weeks, the ratings were so bad that USA removed it from its Monday-at-10 time period; the network soon canceled “House Wars,” hoping that time will eventually erase all memory of the series.

“It was just a bad show,” says Doug Herzog, president of USA Network. “We broke every rule in producing it, particularly the one that says you don’t let the sales department drive the content of a TV series.”

Herzog is referring to USA’s partnership with the giant retailer Home Depot, which had a lot to say in the production of “House Wars.”

Herzog says he got seduced by the fact that “House Wars” was a lot cheaper than scripted USA series like “Monk” and “The Dead Zone,” and that most of these reality shows appeal disproportionately to the young viewers that Madison Avenue lusts after.

“House Wars” would not have seen the light of day if USA’s media-conglom parent NBC Universal had not pushed the network to dumb-down its programming, hoping that more people would tune in and advertisers would cough up more money for 30-second spots.

“I don’t think the example of ‘House Wars’ is a matter of dumbing-down on orders from the parent company,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media. “I’d call it an attempt by USA to throw out a bigger fishnet to attract light viewers who might not typically watch USA.”

Adgate says cable networks almost have to experiment with different kinds of shows because “there’s so much audience fractionalization from all of the digital-cable networks that have started up in the last few years.”

Cable systems and satellite distributors bombard the average subscriber, he adds, with more than 100 networks, a number that has doubled in the last four years.

One cable network that’s trying to lure more viewers, TBS, plans to use reruns of “Sex and the City” when they premiere on two nights this summer as the lead-in to a couple of reality shows featuring gorgeous young men and women navigating the often stormy waters of their relationships.

TBS has not yet afforded any details of these relationship shows. But because of the high production gloss of “Sex and the City” — and the rave reviews it has generated from most TV critics — TBS is well aware that if it comes up with cheaply produced schlock, the “Sex/City” viewers will reject it faster than Samantha Jones can hop into the sack with her latest conquest.

While not commenting specifically on his primetime-reality-show plans, Steve Koonin, exec VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, says reality figures prominently in his plans because “there’s no barrier to entry for a cable network, the way there is for a scripted series.”

What Koonin is referring to is the more lavish programming budgets of the broadcast networks, which will always be able to outbid a cable network for a hot drama or sitcom script. Producers know that a hit show on a broadcast network can harvest hundreds of millions of dollars in rerun syndication and cable.

But except for an occasional stunt series like NBC’s “Fear Factor,” “reality shows have no backend,” Koonin says.

Nielsen ratings have proved that people just won’t watch the rerun of a reality show, even big hits like “Survivor,” “The Bachelor” and “Average Joe.” Bowing to the numbers, broadcasters rarely play a reality episode more than once.

Reality shows also cost a lot less to produce.

The runaway Fox Network hit “Simple Life,” with Paris Hilton, comes in at only $600,000 an episode, compared with $1 million-plus for a comparable sitcom.

So TBS will have no problem matching broadcast license fees for the right reality show, Koonin says.

To convince the producer to bypass a broadcast network, Koonin says, “I’ll tell him: Would you rather be a little fish in a big pond, or the whole pond at TBS?”

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