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Reality loses bite

Nets' copycat fare fails to find footing

It’s been a brutal week for reality shows, but don’t count out the unscripted genre just yet.

In the past six days alone, the nets have launched three reality shows, and all three have struck out with viewers. Fox scored back-to-back flops with “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” and “The Rebel Billionaire,” while it turned out the joke was on NBC with the underperforming “$25 Million Hoax.”

Earlier in the season, ABC’s “The Benefactor” was such a loser, the net quickly found a way to get it off the air two weeks sooner than planned. A slew of controversy surrounding Fox’s “The Next Great Champ” couldn’t get viewers to care about boxing. And when the Peacock got greedy with the success of “Last Comic Standing” by rushing a new season of the show on the air barely two weeks after the end of the previous season, the audience thought the net was joking — and stayed away in droves.

All this failure in such a short amount of time — coupled with the runaway success of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” — will no doubt have some alarmists declaring reality is dead.

A closer look at the genre’s track record this fall, however, reveals that viewers are still very much in love with unscripted shows. They’re just punishing networks for launching skeins that are either too familiar or rushed together too quickly.

“With quantity comes failure,” admitted Mike Darnell, Fox’s exec VP of alternative programming. “You can’t do this much quantity without doing shows that are similar to other shows. It becomes a combination of mediocre shows or shows that are so similar to other shows, they don’t stick out.”

Cablers hurt, too

Broadcasters aren’t the only ones suffering negative side effects from their addiction to reality. Cablers are also finding it harder to get auds interested in unscripted projects.

Bravo, which struck gold with “Queer Eye,” has lost its gaydar with “Top Model” clone “Manhunt.” Spike TV’s “Apprentice”-like “I Hate My Job” has viewers saying, “I Don’t Really Like This Show.” And TBS’ “He’s a Lady” might as well be called “He’s a Dud.”

In the case of Fox, the net seems to have incorrectly bet that a heavy dose of reality would keep the net’s pulse racing in September and after baseball. Just as ABC flooded the market with reality shows in the first quarter of 2003, Fox is devoting nearly two-thirds of its primetime sked this month to unscripted fare.

Alphabet’s plan flopped, resulting in a sea of failure. Fox is doing a bit better, but not much.

Originals still wow

The good news: viewers still seem ready to embrace originality when it comes to reality.

ABC’s “Wife Swap” is the unsung hero of the season, this week beating the mighty “Law & Order” Wednesday at 10. Fox has also seen encouraging numbers for kiddie makeover show “Nanny 911,” while its “Wife Swap” clone “Trading Spouses” is quietly posting solid results.

NBC also has reason to cheer “The Biggest Loser,” which — while not a Nielsen heavyweight — has suppressed the net’s performance in the 8-9:30 p.m. Tuesday slot.

All four shows have one thing in common: They’re new concepts that haven’t yet saturated the marketplace.

Nets also have to be relieved that existing reality franchises are still doing fine.

“Survivor” still thrives on Thursdays, while ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has exploded in its second season. “The Apprentice” is down from last season, but still mighty, while UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model” has found its (long) legs after a shaky start.

Still, Darnell and others concede there may simply be too many reality skeins on the air.

“The volume was bound to implode on itself, and now we’re seeing the result,” said one industry vet.

Alt rocked

While nets have traditionally used reality skeins to plug holes in their midseason skeds or keep the lights on during the summer, this year saw a fall launch packed with more reality skeins than ever before. Greedy for a quick ratings fix, webheads have once again forgotten that reality is supposed to be alternative programming — not the bread and butter of a sked.

“Unfortunately for alternative, when it becomes the staple that it is now, you’re just going to have failure,” Darnell said. “And you’re going to have almost as much failure as in any other area.”

Indeed, despite all the hoopla over ABC’s hourlong hits, it’s been an awful year for new scripted dramas.

CBS has already killed two of its three new hours, pulling the plug on “Dr. Vegas” and “Clubhouse.” NBC has also dumped “Hawaii,” while “LAX” seems headed for a final descent any day now, barring a last minute ratings tailwind. The WB’s “Jack & Bobby” and “The Mountain” barely have a pulse.

Laffers suffer

And comedy? It’s still pretty dead. NBC now airs just 90 minutes of comedy each week vs. 3½ hours of reality.

But while scripted vets are used to a world in which 80% of new shows bite the dust in their first year, the high mortality rate is something new for reality producers and execs. Ditto the overwhelming workload demanded when nets order up so much fare so quickly.

Producers on many skeins are working 20-hour days battling to get shows done in record time. Producers of “Biggest Loser” had to switch gears at the last second and turn hourlong episodes into 90-minute segs with hardly any notice.

Some wonder if all the rushing doesn’t lead to inferior shows — though “Loser” and “Nanny 911” are doing fine. It certainly taxes the strength of reality execs, whose relatively small staffs now find themselves juggling one or two dozen projects at a time.

Darnell, the symbolic face of TV’s turn-of-the-century reality wave, insists he and his staff can keep up. He also remains convinced reality has joined sitcoms and dramas as a permanent third staple of network TV.

The exec believes Fox and other nets are “still finding our way in this genre,” learning new lessons about what viewers do and don’t want. He predicts more original reality ideas come January — and he has no doubt the next “American Idol” or “Survivor” is out there.

“If it’s good and it’s unique and it’s loud, it’ll work,” he said.

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