Show some Respect

No longer apprentice to sitcoms and dramas, reality programming has become the boss of fall TV.

TV's New Reality

In autumn's lineups, reality programming goes from alternative to anchor.

Cover Story: Fall TV

August 22, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

This is the story of five Amish kids, a supermodel named Tyra, a billionaire with weird hair, and a new respect for reality TV.

Last year, the UPN television network had no reality programs on its fall schedule, and, except for its Monday night lineup of sitcoms starring African-American actors, was generating few ratings and little buzz.

This season, however, the network owns the most successful new series of the summer, a reality show called Amish in the City. And beginning next month, it will air twice a week America's Next Top Model -- last spring's most popular new show among young women aged 18 to 34.

Suddenly, UPN is a red-hot network that can claim 2 million young adult viewers -- twice as many as last year.

The switch at UPN demonstrates how one or two strong reality programs can reverse the fortunes of an entire network. It also points to a pervasive shift in how networks view -- and program -- reality TV shows. Once considered a lucrative but lowbrow upstart used to pump fresh blood into summer schedules or plug midseason ratings leaks, reality television now occupies the front line of TV programming.

Consider: Last year, there were only seven reality shows included in the fall lineup of the six broadcast networks. This year, 23 weekly reality programs dot the fall lineup at those same networks, and a host of others appear on the rosters of prime cable channels such as HBO, Showtime, Bravo and A&E.

Trusting in Trump

It's not just a matter of quantity. This fall, for the first time, reality shows form the programming cornerstone of every network except WB. And nowhere is that more clearly seen than on NBC and Fox.

NBC, hoping to capitalize on its Olympics viewership, will launch its new lineup of programs on Aug. 30, in what will be the earliest start ever of the "fall season." For weeks, it has been trumpeting the new season of its most successful reality series, Fear Factor and Last Comic Standing. Meanwhile, on the same night, Fox will counter with one of its new reality series, The Complex: Malibu, which features eight couples competing in makeover projects to see which wins a home in the exclusive California coastal community.

And for the first time in more than two decades, NBC's Thursday evening lineup -- the night it has relentlessly promoted as "must-see TV" -- is not built around a hit comedy or drama such as The Cosby Show or ER. Instead, the success of NBC's Thursday ratings lies on the back of a reality program, Donald Trump's The Apprentice, which returns Sept. 9 for its second season.

These days, The Apprentice -- not Dick Wolf's Law & Order -- is the network's "single most valuable show," according to NBC President Jeff Zucker. It is the same at Fox, where programming czar Preston Beckman calls American Idol, not The Simpsons, the network's "crown jewel."

"For the first time, not only are you seeing more reality shows on the fall schedules, but I think reality shows are finally getting the credit that is owed to them," says Dawn Ostroff, the president of UPN, who is responsible for turning that network around.

"It used to be, you had comedy, drama and the stepchild: reality," she adds. "Like comedy and drama, it's become a staple, and that's because a lot of networks have seen that reality can be a real game-changer for them."

The prototype game-changer is Survivor, which in the summer of 2000, "came on and helped turn around CBS," she says. Four years later, the franchise is as strong as ever; Survivor: Vanuatu, the ninth version of Survivor (making its premiere Sept. 16), forms the cornerstone of the CBS lineup on Thursday nights.

Send in the clones

Other examples of the clout and ripple effect of reality television abound. The Apprentice, starring Trump, made its debut last January, and so dominated the Nielsen ratings in the second half of the season that it (seemingly instantly) spawned two imitations.

The first, ABC's The Benefactor, stars billionaire Dallas businessman Mark Cuban, who dangles a million-dollar prize in front of 16 contestants. It will air on Monday nights at 8 starting Sept. 13.

The second, Fox's The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best, features Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, leading a group of young entrepreneurs around the world. It will air Tuesday nights at 8, starting Nov. 9.

"Before, the thinking was that you would never put reality on in the fall, because advertisers wouldn't accept it," says Jonathan Murray, executive producer of Branson.

"Well, they're accepting it this year, because they see what shows like Survivor, The Apprentice and The Simple Life have done for CBS, NBC and Fox. The genre has really matured," adds Murray, who, with Mary-Ellis Bunim, introduced MTV's The Real World in 1992. (The 15th installment of that landmark franchise will make its premiere Sept. 26 with The Real World: Philadelphia.)

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