×

Can reality feel good?

As nasty shows founder, nets get nice and retro since TV economics still favor unscripted fare

The reality TV bubble has burst, but that’s no reason for the small-screen’s scribe tribe to start breaking out the Dom.

Sure, the past six months have seen a series of flameouts on the unscripted front.

Fox threw up a half-dozen different reality shows last fall, only to watch almost every one of them tank. ABC’s attempt to rip off “The Apprentice” (with zillionaire Mark Cuban) was soundly rejected, while viewers found nothing funny about NBC’s rushed-to-air “Last Comic Standing 3.”

The carnage continued last week, with CBS pulling the plug on the critically loathed family sudser “The Will” after only a single broadcast.

“In the same way the networks hurt the sitcom business by doing too many, they hurt the reality genre by doing the same thing,” one industry vet says.

But like the monster in a bad horror movie that just won’t die, the unscripted beast is already poised for reinvention. And like addicts who just can’t kick their habits, webheads are eagerly awaiting whatever new drug producers can dish out.

The latest designer drug: kinder, gentler feel-good fare such as ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

Skein’s Jan. 9 episode attracted more adults 18-49 than any other reality episode this season, beating out the finales of both “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.” A spinoff of “Home Edition” dubbed “How’d They Do That?” bowed to impressive numbers the next night.

ABC also has a hit with “Wife Swap” and hopes to score again with this week’s “Super Nanny.” NBC notched super ratings with “The Biggest Loser,” which took Oprah Winfrey’s high-rated body transformation episodes and brought them to primetime.

In syndication, “Starting Over” is building a loyal aud by combining life makeovers with elements of traditional sudsers. MTV’s big hit last year was a show that did nothing sexier than give people the cars of their dreams.

Even Fox, which saw many of its unscripted skeins go down in flames last fall, has done well by playing nice. Its takes on the nanny and spouse-trading concepts were among the net’s few fall bright spots, while meaner fare such as “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” flopped.

“It’s all about wish fulfillment and escapism and great stories with happy endings,” says Andrea Wong, the ABC alternative topper who’s made the most hay out of the warm-and-fuzzy fare. “It’s been the domain of daytime for a long time.”

The success of these queen for a day-type shows — call it “Must-Dream TV” — is the biggest reason scripted producers can’t take much delight in the recent failures of so many reality shows.

“I don’t know that you can make sweeping statements about reality as a genre being ‘out,’ ” says ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson, who’s engineered the Alphabet’s stunning comeback this season with a mix of scripted and unscripted hits.

“Whenever someone declares a genre dead, that’s the time it hits,” he adds.

But even if reality TV is far from dead, the frenzy of last fall isn’t likely to be repeated.

“There’s already a slowdown going on,” says one exec, echoing the sentiment of numerous industry insiders who believe the success of such scripted skeins as “Desperate Housewives” and “Medium” will result in the nets taking more chances on ambitious scripted fare when they pick their new skeds in May.

Sean Perry, head of Endeavor’s alternative department, believes the biggest change in reality TV will be the end of the “throw-it-up-and-see-what-sticks” approach to programming.

“There’s a great line in ‘Jurassic Park’ in which someone says, ‘You scientists were so worried about whether we could achieve this, you never asked ‘Should we achieve this?,’ ” Perry says. “I think now nets and producers will all take a pause and say, ‘Should we produce this, or should we try something new and not take the low-hanging fruit?’ “