Surprise! Season starts with a trio of reality shows

Rivals NBC and Fox go head to head with new show, two returnees

Fall TV

August 30, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The new fall television season starts tonight -- sort of.

With NBC attempting to use the momentum of the Olympics to launch its fall lineup, while arch-rival Fox tries to counter, new series will begin premiering tonight in the earliest start of the fall season ever. But not all networks will be equally involved just yet, as a TV tradition that's been in place for more than four decades begins to lose its hold on the rhythms of prime-time programming.

"Whether or not you consider this the most nontraditional fall season ever depends on what network you're talking about," Preston Beckman, senior vice president for strategic programming at Fox, said in a telephone interview.

"In the case of CBS and ABC, they are pretty much going to launch the bulk of their shows during the traditional premiere week starting Sept. 20. But, in the case of NBC, they're trying to use the Olympics to get their schedule off the ground. Meanwhile, at Fox, where we've been debuting new series since June, we believe that if this is going to be a competitive season, we can't allow NBC to get a free pass out of the Olympics."

Most of the programming action this week will involve NBC and Fox, but CBS, ABC, UPN and WB will all launch new series during the next two weeks. The early arrivals offer a snapshot of the season -- a glut of reality shows and only a few promising new sitcoms and dramas.

With 23 reality series on the network schedules this fall compared to seven last year, the coming of age of reality TV is the dominant story line. All three series debuting tonight are from that genre.

At 8, Fox launches a new makeover-relationship hybrid called The Complex: Malibu, featuring eight couples competing to rehab four condos in the exclusive California coastal community, while NBC counters with the new seasons for two of its most successful reality series, Fear Factor at 8 and Last Comic Standing at 9:30.

Last Comic Standing just ended its summer run last week and was supposed to be rested for a few months before returning. But that was before NBC and Fox went to war, with NBC accusing Fox of stealing the concept behind its reality show about boxing, The Contender -- a charge Fox flatly denies.

NBC hopes to land a major programming punch tonight by using Last Comic Standing and Fear Factor to knock The Complex out of the ring before it ever finds its feet. But even if NBC wins tonight, one has to wonder about the cost, given what the network could have made by selling to advertisers all the promotional minutes it spent on Last Comic and Fear Factor during the Olympics. (NBC executives declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The NBC rollout continues tomorrow night with another series heavily promoted during the Olympics, Father of the Pride, a CGI-animated comedy from DreamWorks Animation about the off-stage life of lions and other animals from Las Vegas' Siegfried & Roy show.

John Goodman and Cheryl Hines provide the voices of lead lions Larry and Kate in what has to be strangest and most misguided new series of the year. Using the animation made famous in Shrek, Father of the Pride is clearly intended to attract some children. But the overriding theme of tomorrow night's pilot is sex and mating.

Furthermore, there's the matter of illusionist Roy Horn's having been mauled by a tiger during a show in Las Vegas last October.

Meanwhile, the federal government is investigating whether animal-cruelty laws have been violated in the handling of animals used by Siegfried & Roy.

Watching the cartoon lions against that real-world history makes for surreal viewing. Given all its Olympics promotion, Father of the Pride could be the biggest network bomb since CBS used millions of dollars during the 1992 Winter Olympics to hype Fish Police, featuring cartoon fish as law-enforcement officers. It was canceled after three weeks.

NBC will also premiere one of the worst dramas of the year with Hawaii, which arrives Wednesday night at 8. The series wants to be Miami Vice, but executive producer Jeff Eastin seems to have no sense of the way music, editing, image and color drove that landmark 1980s series.

Things will get better for NBC next week when it premieres Joey, Matt LeBlanc's likable spinoff of Friends, and season two of Donald Trump's The Apprentice on Sept. 9. But the competition will also begin to get more intense, especially on cable. Bravo will premiere Miami Slice, a new reality series about plastic surgeons, on Sept. 6, while MTV starts The Real World: Philadelphia on Sept. 7.

The idea of all the networks premiering their new series in the same week of September is history. The tradition started in the early 1960s with last-place ABC trying to package its new shows to attract new-car and back-to-school advertising dollars. CBS and NBC counter-programmed to try and quash the upstart, making for a one-week logjam of new shows.

The process this year is more akin to the earliest days of prime time, when premieres were spread throughout the year.

It's a direction in which network television has been slowly but surely heading since the summertime launch of Survivor on CBS in 2000. Survivor returns this year on Sept. 16, another early starter.

"What fall season? Last summer, we launched the O.C. This summer, we've had success with Trading Spouses," Fox's Beckman said. "Tradition depends on what network you're talking about this fall."

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