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Reality returns full force

'Makeover,' 'Idol,' 'Queer' prove format's still popular

After suffering through the fall season from hell, webheads are resolving to woo viewers back by giving them a major dose of reality.

More than a dozen new and returning unscripted skeins will hit the big six over the next three months, from newcomers such as ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” to returning powerhouses such as “American Idol.”

Overall, the tally of fresh reality skeins is almost double the number of new midseason comedies and dramas in the works. There’s a reason the webs are going wild for reality again: It works.

Over on the basic cable side, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” was the story of the year with Bravo — now an NBC component — becoming a permanent big-time player. As for scripted fare, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” caught fire with auds and will return for a second sesh.

In the pay cable sector, all was not roses at powerhouse HBO. Though “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under” remained bonafide hits, “Carnivale” barely survived renewal and “K Street” was a misfire. At rival Showtime, Robert Greenblatt’s appointment to entertainment topper — and the airing of CBS reject “The Reagans” — was most noteworthy.

Compared with the summer and spring, the broadcast nets largely ignored reality in the fall — and young viewers stayed away in droves, resulting in double-digit declines in key demos for most nets.

By contrast, the only true breakouts from the fall were unscripted: NBC’s “Average Joe” and Fox’s “The Simple Life,” which rank among the top 20 shows of the fall among 18-49. Three other reality shows on the big four’s fall skeds — “Survivor” (CBS), “The Bachelor” (ABC) and “Fear Factor” — all landed in the demo’s top 20.

Webheads resisted using reality in the fall partially out of fear of alienating advertisers, who are often skittish about shows sans scripts. But there’s evidence Madison Avenue will get over its reality fears for shows that aren’t too sleazy or whose ratings are just too big to ignore.

Fox’s “American Idol” fits into both categories, and competitors aren’t looking forward to its return. ” ‘American Idol’ is an incredibly strong franchise, and it’s going to make life difficult for everybody,” says NBC programming topper Jeff Zucker.

Look for Fox to use “Idol” to launch other shows (scripted and unscripted) and give boosts to returning skeins. Case in point: The second season of Fox laffer “Oliver Beene” will bow after an expanded edition of “Idol.”

Indeed, the return of “Idol” promises to alter the ratings landscape.

After struggling through another tough fall, the “Idol” factor should put Fox right back into the thick of things Nielsenwise (barring any unexpected backlash against the red-hot music skein).

Meanwhile, the combo of the Super Bowl and an all-star edition of “Survivor” figure to make CBS — already the season’s runaway winner in the total viewer tally — more competitive than it has been in years with younger auds.

“For us, the pluses so outweigh the minuses, it’s pretty exciting,” says CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves. “We can look forward to May (and the upfront presentations) with a great foundation.”

All of this means NBC, which led in fall with adults 18-49, faces the prospect of Fox and CBS nipping at its heels as it fights to hold on to demo supremacy. NBC’s ace in the hole, however, will come in late spring when it begins airing the final episodes of “Friends.”

Then there’s ABC.

A year ago, the net successfully launched a revamped fall schedule only to fall to pieces come January. Alphabet execs now candidly admit to getting greedy and launching too many reality shows in too short a time period.

ABC programmers say they won’t make the same mistakes twice, though the net has some handicaps it can’t do anything about: The return of “Idol” (which figures to weaken the numbers for the net’s Tuesday and Wednesday laffers) and the departure of “Monday Night Football” (which leaves a massive hole in the net’s primetime sked).

Despite the unscripted buzz, nets aren’t abandoning midseason as a platform to launch comedies and dramas.

ABC, for example, has high hopes for “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital,” a limited-run drama premiering in March. There’s also early buzz surrounding the CBS futuristic legal drama “Century City.”

Fox hasn’t yet announced plans for its scripted midseason skeins, but two shows — the drama “Wonderfalls” and comedy “Cracking Up” — could be contenders. It’s possible Fox could save one or both until summer, however. The net is considering a plan to launch many of its 2004-05 sked in June and July.

NBC, meanwhile, will likely launch one laffer before “Friends” says farewell. The half-hour, “Come to Papa,” has a vaguely “Seinfeld”-ian feel to it, but Zucker isn’t expecting any new comedy to break out big. “You can’t find a replacement for ‘Friends’ until ‘Friends’ is off the air,” he says.

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