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Guest Commentary: Reality programming’s no savior for networks

Apr 2, 2001  •  Post A Comment

There are two events converging on Hollywood that may well result in the greatest threat of mutually assured destruction since the Cold War. I’m speaking of the increasing reliance on reality-based programming by the national over-the-air networks and the ending of talks between the Writers Guild of America and the production community.

I believe the fundamental strength of our network business has been the ability to deliver a consistent schedule of quality scripted drama and comedy series. Only the six major networks have the financial resources, audience reach and promotional platforms necessary to create series programming of enduring value. It takes these assets to bring together the best writers, performers and behind-the-camera talent. No other programming entity can match this strength on a day-in and day-out basis. That is why at any given time the most popular programs on television are on the six major over-the air networks, in spite of the 60-plus channels the average U.S. home can receive.

There is no question that current hits such as “Survivor” and “Temptation Island” have spawned a new genre that looks tempting to cost-conscious networks: no writers, no stars, no expensive sets.

But in that simplicity lies the danger. Whereas quality scripted programming is extremely difficult to create, virtually anyone with an idea and a couple of cameras can get into the reality game. The cloning of “Survivor” has already begun. Take a look at two new shows entering syndication this fall: “Elimidate” and “Fifth Wheel.”

Certainly there is a place for reality shows on the network schedule. They make excellent summer programming and can be used as short-term fixes. But to think they can become the foundation of a network schedule is a fatal error. Want an example of what happens to an easily copied genre? Where is “America’s Funniest Home Videos” now?

Even the venerable “Cops” has lost significant audience over the years.

Please don’t lose sight of the network brand’s foundation.

The impending danger of a writers’ strike make this argument even timelier. The availability of reality-based programming might look like a solution to series-starved networks. Think again.

As viewers search for fresh programs, many services will rush to fill the void. They can produce inexpensive reality shows too. During the 1988 writers’ strike, a desperately struggling fourth network gained the foothold it needed to survive with its reality shows “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

Now 13 years later, there are dozens more program sources waiting in the wings during contract negotiations between the writers and studios. But I do know that the creative folks need the reach of the over-the-air networks, the power of their promotion and the synergy of their schedules for their creative voices to be heard.

The networks can’t afford to lose the valuable franchise they built with quality scripted-series programming. If the issue separating the two sides aren’t resolved, there will be only losers.

Chuck Dunning is general sales manager at Fox affiliate XETV in San Diego.