Reality intrudes on networks' creativity

Scripted shows are suffering, along with fall planning


April 25, 2004|By Bill Carter | Bill Carter,New York Times News Service

Every spring for the past half century, Hollywood studio executives, talent agents and the rest of the television entertainment hierarchy have engaged in the ritual of planning program pilots, hoping to land the best lineup of new television series to be introduced en masse the following September.

This year, the game has changed drastically and, for many players, times are exceedingly tough.

"It's a really hard time to be in the business now," said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television. Her point was echoed by Peter Roth, president of the Warner Brothers television production studio. "The business is challenging and it seems more so this year than any in a long time," Roth said.

The big reason is that the shows that have provided the lifeblood of the television creative community, all those sitcoms and dramas, have fallen starkly out of favor as viewers gravitate to a different kind of television show. "The business is being driven by reality television," Walden said. "It is a very challenging time for people who are proud of and continue to believe in the scripted television show."

Studio chiefs are not the only ones feeling the pressure: Television writers, directors and actors have reason to be worried as well, specifically about how many jobs the old system is going to continue to generate -- because fewer prime-time slots are going to be available for scripted shows.

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, said: "It turns out that the next Friends was not a half-hour scripted comedy. It was The Apprentice."

That development more than any other has changed the attitudes of both networks and advertisers to reality shows. Zucker said the fall is still likely to be devoted to selling what he called "known reality" -- reality shows that have track records -- rather than a host of new shows. But no one in the industry doubts that many new reality shows will be introduced throughout the new television season.

'Upscale reality'

Here is how far out of favor the scripted shows have fallen: In the current television season, 12 of the top 20 shows are reality shows, and many of the others are either about to close down for good, like Friends, or are part of multipart crime franchises, like NBC's Law & Order and CBS' C.S.I.

This is taking place as the industry prepares for the spring "upfront presentations," the annual network effort to sell new shows in advance to their most important constituency: advertisers. But other circumstances, many of them also having to do with the impact of reality shows, are threatening to alter that ritual as well.

The Fox network, for example, has basically announced that because it has two pillars for its programming -- baseball in the fall and American Idol in the winter -- it no longer has a fall television season. Instead it plans to begin introducing a roster of new shows in June. (An announcement of Fox's lineup of new shows is expected tomorrow.)

The two leading networks (in terms of total viewers and young adult viewers), CBS and NBC, have such stable schedules they have already announced that they plan minimal changes for the next season -- and many of their new plans are already known. Both, for example, will add new editions of their franchise crime dramas, a fourth Law & Order for NBC and a third C.S.I. for CBS.

And ABC, in the midst of another dismal season and another executive overhaul (which is still not completed), is creating more doubters than believers in its ability to find the shows to turn itself around.

"This upfront has no level of excitement to it at all," said Alan Berger, a longtime agent now with the Creative Artists Agency. "The old gray mare ain't what she used to be."

Again reality television is having an enormous impact. Unlike last season, when the networks basically ran away from reality in their presentations to advertisers, because they feared advertisers would resist committing money to reality television, they are embracing what Randy Falco, the group president of NBC, called "the right kind of reality -- upscale reality."

The show that best symbolizes that genre is The Apprentice, which scored a ratings bonanza with its recent finale and has become the show with the most affluent audience profile in television.

Advertisers in the upfront still have resistance to shows that do not have pilots, Falco said, and most reality shows do not have pilots. That is one reason why few new reality entries are expected to be on the fall schedule, but will instead be used to replace the scripted shows that fail quickly.

"The game has changed," Zucker said. "Everybody is looking for the next big scripted success. And people had some scripted successes. We had Las Vegas. Fox had The O.C. CBS had Two and a Half Men.

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