The new reality for TV audiences: low-cost shows

Critical Eye

January 07, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,[Sun Television Critic]

Call it the revenge of the network programmers. Last September, the fall season was studded with expensive, well-written dramas (think NBC's Kidnapped or ABC's The Nine). In some cases, the pilots alone cost $6 million to make.

Instead of rewarding the networks for producing quality shows, American viewers reacted with such indifference that many programs -- such as CBS' Smith, starring Ray Liotta as the leader of a gang of high-stakes thieves -- were canceled by November. In some cases, network losses exceeded $10 million per series.

Now comes television's second season, and TV executives are scrambling to balance the books. Viewers should prepare themselves for an onslaught of inexpensive reality TV programs, some of which cost as little as $500,000 an episode to make -- and it shows.

The on-the-cheap onslaught begins tonight with the arrival of three series, each offering its contestants a chance to win a "dream" job, such as starring on Broadway in Grease or writing about music for Rolling Stone magazine.

Another trio of shows -- ranging from Armed & Famous, in which B-list celebrities fight crime in Muncie, Ind., to another in which female contestants try to determine whether potential dates are "gay, straight or taken" -- will make their premieres later in the week.

The most promising of the new series debuts at 8 tonight, when NBC premieres Grease: You're the One That I Want!, an American-Idol-like competition in which two contestants will win lead roles in a new $10 million Broadway production of the musical.

"Thousands will audition, but only 50 will make it to Grease Academy, where they will undergo a boot-camp-style regime," viewers are told in the show's opening.

A trio of judges will cut the field to 12 finalists, with viewers picking the two winners in this show from the producers of the ABC hit Dancing with the Stars.

Back for its sixth season and starting at 9 tonight is Donald Trump's The Apprentice, which NBC has moved from New York to Los Angeles in hopes of jump-starting the declining franchise.

Boasting the same old bombastic Donald, the show now includes California sunshine and the billionaire's daughter, Ivanka, as a boardroom aide.

"I'm Donald Trump, and my newest property, the National Golf Club in Los Angeles, is doing amazingly well," he tells viewers while motoring down a palm-lined boulevard in a convertible. "I love L.A."

The hyped-up come-on continues with Trump explaining that one of the 18 hopefuls in the show will win "the dream job of a lifetime" -- a yearlong apprenticeship in his company.

The stakes are comparatively smaller in I'm from Rolling Stone, which premieres at 10 tonight on MTV. The series follows six aspiring journalists as they compete for a staff position at the legendary pop-culture magazine.

In addition to their low cost, such series are attractive to programmers because of their potential appeal to young viewers who, like the contestants, are searching for a job that they feel will allow them to follow their passions. The most successful shows speak directly to viewer ambitions and dreams -- whether it is to be rich or famous or both.

But that's the high end of reality TV. There's another whole realm of the genre characterized by exploitation and social irresponsibility. CBS' Armed & Famous, debuting at 8 Wednesday night, may be the latest entry in this category.

The series follows such tired celebrities as singer La Toya Jackson and actor Erik Estrada, who played a California Highway Patrol officer on ChiPs(NBC, 1977-'83), as they go through training and then serve as police officers in the city of Muncie. (The crime-fighting cast also includes skateboader Jason "Wee-Man" Acuna, former WWE wrestling champ Trish Stratus and Jack Osbourne of MTV's The Osbournes.)

It is hard to discern any appeal to these shows deeper than that of seeing low-level celebrities humiliate themselves. The appeal to the network, however, is obvious: low-cost, high-concept programming.

While declining to discuss specifics, producer Tom Forman acknowledged that Armed & Famous cost "substantially less" to produce than an hourlong drama.

"I don't want to be elusive on this ... but I think typically reality shows cost half as much as their scripted counterparts," Forman said during a CBS conference call last week that included Estrada and Joseph Winkle, chief of the Muncie Police Department.Given that the average hour of network drama costs at least $2.5 million, that would put the cost for an hour of reality TV at $1.25 million. Based on the pilot of Armed & Famous, that figure seems high by at least $250,000.

Far more important than production costs is the issue of giving these celebrities guns and allowing them to enforce the law. Osbourne, for example, has acknowledged periods of drug addiction, attempting suicide and threatening his sister with a knife.

"If in fact, Jack had an arrest or a conviction on any of those things, it would disqualify him," Winkle said.

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