Los Angeles - The networks like to call it "reality" television. But metaphysics aside, what we are really talking about is "cheap" television.
And one thing viewers are going to be seeing a lot more of this spring is cheap programs. The bottom line is shaping the look of prime time at the broadcast networks more and more. A few examples:
*ABC has a new program called "American Detective." Sound familiar? It should: It's "Cops," the Fox show that follows real police officers around, kicked up to the level of detectives. Instead of following the foot soldiers around with a jerky, hand-held camera, we follow the lieutenants around with a jerky, hand-held camera. "Detectives" was created by a "Cops" producer, Paul Stanjonovich. It is slated for a regular, weekly spot in ABC's lineup this spring.
*NBC introduced "Expose" Sunday. While the network is selling the notion that it is suddenly committed to investigative reporting in prime time and furiously hiring news employees while everyone else is cutting back, the truth is that "Expose" is on the schedule because it's cheap and it can be promoted as tabloid television. Hiring 35 employees for such a show is nickels and dimes compared to production costs for a regular half-hour of prime-time TV these days.
*On Feb. 3, NBC is adding "Sunday Best," a show it says "will celebrate the television medium and its role in our culture." NBC says its research shows a great appetite for such television-as-culture tributes in America's living rooms. The cast includes Carl Reiner as host, and Linda Ellerbee and Merrill Markoe as contributors.
What will you see? Lots of clips from television shows.
"Sunday Best" is so inexpensive to produce compared to traditional drama and comedy, that the head of NBC Entertainment, Warren Littlefield, felt compelled to say, "It's not just a clip show. Fifty percent of the show will be original material." It was Littlefield's way of trying to get the critics attending a press conference here to see the glass as half full instead of half empty.
*Fox has yet another "reality" series set for next month, "The Last Hurrah." It is a documentary chopped up into weekly installments about a senior class at a high school in Illinois.
The filmmakers said at a press conference here last week that they paid a total of $10,000 to get rights to the students' lives. Rights to a book for a two-hour docudrama can cost up to half a million dollars.