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Broadcast television

Networks' cup overflows with reality 'Joe'

For a demonstration of the confounding, topsy-turvy nature of television in 2003, look no further than the rise and fall of “Joe Millionaire.”

Fox’s surprise winter sensation, whose finale attracted a whopping 40 million viewers, quickly morphed into a fall flop when the net tried to reprise the concept — overshadowed, oddly enough, by another unscripted show with a like-sounding moniker, NBC’s “Average Joe.”

Such are the vagaries of primetime since the relatively recent ascendance of so-called reality, where last quarter’s blockbuster can become this quarter’s dud, heightening the pace of change in what was already an unpredictable business.

However cultural historians view the ’00s in hindsight, that increased sense of churn and rapid-fire reversals of fortune promise to be one of its most enduring legacies, along with the further blurring of lines between cable and broadcast, with hits coming almost as readily from one quadrant as the other.

The year’s most-talked-about program in media circles, for example, was neither scripted nor initiated for one of the major nets, though Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” was soon enough running on big brother NBC. Yet even that property found itself quickly overexposed, fueling skepticism as to whether it can become a long-term franchise or just another blink-and-you-missed-it phenom, a la MTV’s “The Osbournes.”

Nor was 2003 especially kind to new scripted series, although FX’s plastic surgery drama “Nip/Tuck” and Fox’s teen sudser “The OC” drew significant ratings over the summer and look like keepers.

Instead, it was a year most notable for high-profile freshman failures including the WB’s new take on “Tarzan”; Jerry Bruckheimer’s pornography-as-backdrop serial “Skin” on Fox; and a pair of NBC shows, Rob Lowe’s legal drama “The Lyon’s Den” and the naughty sexcom “Coupling,” based on the hit Brit skein of the same name.

The TV season that began in September also witnessed a disconcerting drop-off in viewing among men 18-34, leaving network execs scratching their heads and blaming the messenger, Nielsen Media Research. The ratings company has thus far stuck to its guns, acknowledging only that shifts in its sample designed to better represent the nation’s growing Latino population may account for some of the declines.

The mysterious male exodus seemed to hit younger-skewing nets like Fox and the WB more heavily than CBS and NBC, which remained atop the ratings. CBS, in particular, appears to enjoy the most momentum heading into 2004, adding solid first-year shows like “Joan of Arcadia,” “Cold Case” and “Two and a Half Men.”

The strong initial results for “Joan,” in particular, highlight how hard tastes have become to handicap, as the drama about a teenage girl who talks to God left NBC’s competing newcomer, the Alicia Silverstone vehicle “Miss Match,” among Nielsen’s lovelorn.

Then again, even the Academy Awards — coming shortly after the onset of war in Iraq — experienced a stunning audience decline by averaging 33 million viewers, plummeting more than 20% vs. 2002.

So heavy as 2003 was on reality shows with a twist, the TV biz itself continues to offer no shortage of surprises — the kind that can suddenly transform a “Millionaire” into just an average show named Joe.

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