TV executives confront new network reality

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

While the purpose of the Television Critics Association press tour is to talk about new fall TV shows, the critics last week were more interested in discussing the effect reality TV programming has had on viewers this summer.
“I’m not a [social] scientist,” said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, referring to the second summer of
his network’s “Big Brother” experiment. “What am I looking for? I’m looking for trying different types of programming forms. I’m tired of putting on `Diagnosis Murder’ reruns in the summer. Look, if we wouldn’t have tried `Survivor’ a year ago at this time, we wouldn’t be where we are today, and we wouldn’t have done this [`Big Brother’].”
Mr. Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem were grilled over the knife-wielding incident that got New Jersey bartender Justin Sebik kicked off “Big Brother” and a widely rumored oral sex proposition after that.
Mr. Moonves said he thought executive producer Arnold Shapiro “reacted appropriately” by immediately ousting Mr. Sebik. He also said the network acted responsibly by not airing the incident-which was streamed live over CBS.com’s subscription-only video feed-in “Big Brother’s” subsequent July 12 broadcast.
“It was a tough call,” Mr. Moonves said. “If we had shown it, there would have been more outrage that we had shown a man putting a knife to woman’s throat, even in the manner he did it. We did not want to show that act on television-that was the decision we made.”
The “Big Brother” incident once again called into question reality shows’ vetting process to determine the stability of contestants.
“There’s no 100 percent certainty in any of the investigations that [we] do,” Ms. Tellem said. “You try to do the best job you can, and we were as thorough as we could be, and it’s an unfortunate situation, but that’s the risk you do run.”
Apparently, it’s a risk that NBC is also willing to take with its “Spy TV” and “Fear Factor” reality series, the latter of which has featured contestants entombed with rats and dragged through mud by automobiles.
With such programs garnering high demo ratings for NBC this summer, the critics couldn’t help but ask ABC Television Entertainment Group Co-Chairmen Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun whether the Mickey Mouse network would ever consider more “extreme” reality shows.
“Rat-free” was Mr. Bloomberg’s simple reply. “I’m not here to say negative things about our competition. This is show business, and it’s a business. But you won’t see `Fear Factor’ on ABC, and you won’t see `Spy TV’ on ABC. You will see `The Mole.’ You’re going to see `The Runner.’ We believe that you can put on [a] type of reality programming and still maintain a certain level not only of execution but also of ad revenue.”
To CBS’s relief, the network is getting a lot of positive buzz for its new fall reality series “The Amazing Race,” which follows teams of two contestants each on a race around the world. Mr. Moonves unveiled an accelerated fall schedule rollout, including the Wednesday, Sept. 5, premiere of “The Amazing Race” from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. (ET).
Mr. Moonves said the earlier-than-anticipated scheduling of “Amazing Race” had been “predetermined” before NBC confirmed last week that its competing travel-adventure series “Lost” will be starting on the same night from
8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“It [`Lost’] had no influence in our scheduling,” Mr. Moonves said after CBS’s presentation. “Actually, we were more concerned about getting an earlier start on `West Wing,’ which, from what we understand, won’t be as far into its production cycle and won’t start until several weeks or more after `Amazing Race’ debuts.”
Additionally, Mr. Moonves has slated “Survivor: Africa” for a Thursday, Oct. 11, start at 9 p.m., with the third edition of the hit reality series likely to end on Jan. 10, 2002. Mr. Moonves also confirmed that there will likely be 13 episodes-rather than the typical 14 episodes of originals-to fit four semifinalist contestants into the “finals” competition.
The interval between “Survivor III” and “Survivor IV” is also being shortened, with Mr. Moonves saying it is likely the latter will launch right after the February sweeps. With production already starting in Africa on “Survivor III,” it will mean executive producer Mark Burnett will have to turn around production of “Survivor IV” by the end of the year.
Taking into account the tighter turnaround, Mr. Moonves said it is likely the celebrity version of “Survivor” will have to wait until the 2002-03 season or later.
Other news from TCA:
Mr. Moonves called Disney and ABC’s acquisition of Fox Family Channel a great move, but said CBS did not necessarily feel any immediate pressure to repurpose any prime-time series for shared cable runs on Viacom-owned sister network TNN.
One of the primary stumbling blocks to doing a concurrent cable window with the Viacom-owned networks has to do with CBS having affiliation agreements that force the network to maintain an exclusive prime-time broadcast window, which holds CBS to a one-year delay on a cable window. Mr. Moonves said the network is planning to bring up a renegotiation of affiliation agreements that would allow for concurrent cable windows and a possible sharing of revenues from the cable windows.
However, he also expressed concern about the value of shared cable windows: “It certainly didn’t hurt `Law & Order: SVU,’ but has it really helped `Once and Again’? I don’t know if `Once and Again’ would be a ratings point higher if it didn’t have the [cable] window. I think it is going to take a few more years and a few more shows to see if the rating numbers and revenue numbers work. With the economics, you almost need that second window in certain cases, because these [hour-long dramas] are just getting too damn expensive to produce.”
With rumors of further consolidation among UPN, the Paramount Television Group and MTV Networks, Mr. Moonves said he has not been “talked to” about accepting broader supervision of those holdings. “It is somebody else who decides it,” Mr. Moonves said, adding, “All I worry about is my little network [CBS] here.”
Repeating its mantra that ABC, like any other network, is “one big hit away from being No. 1” in the adults 18 to 49 and household ratings races, Mr. Bloomberg announced a slew of key programming moves, including Stephen King producing his first regular TV series, “The Kingdom,” for ABC.
Mr. Bloomberg said Mr. King is committed to write the first two hours of “The Kingdom.” He also said later that Mr. King may write the “whole season” of what is an initial 13-episode order of the midseason series, set to be co-produced by Columbia TriStar Television and ABC/Disney’s Touchstone Television. Based on a Danish miniseries created by Lars von Trier, “The Kingdom” is about a haunted hospital built over an ancient graveyard.
On top of ABC’s previously announced fall 2001 scheduling plans to premiere three dramas and two comedies, Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Braun confirmed they have chalked in the midseason comedy “The Web” from Peter Tolan and Lauren Corrao.
Mr. Bloomberg jokingly promised that “The Web,” starring Ivan Sergei, is “going to be a very gentle, evenhanded look” at a fictional television network, “because that is what we made Peter [Tolan] do. And if you know Peter, you know it’s a lie. It is really searing and funny.”
Some critics raised repeated questions about the producer and talent changes in ABC’s upcoming Jason Alexander-led “Bob Patterson” sitcom. On the recent exit of Tim Doyle as one of the executive producers (along with Peter Tilden and Ira Behr), Mr. Braun claimed his leaving had nothing to do with “internal problems” but that he was not the right “fit” for the show.
In front of the camera, though, Mr. Bloomberg said Jennifer Aspen (formerly of Fox’s “freakylinks” and “Party of Five”) has joined the cast as Bob Patterson’s ex-wife, while Phil Buckman (“City of Angels,” “Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane”) moves in as an “off
ice guy” on the show.
Mr. Braun acknowledged that “Bob Patterson” could be the network’s riskiest bet for next fall, going up at 9 p.m. Tuesdays against NBC’s “Frasier” and three promising new dramas (Fox’s “24,” The WB’s “Smallville” and CBS’s “The Guardian”).
ABC also announced that Nokia will be the sole sponsor for the commercial-free premiere of “Alias.” In the pilot, a Nokia phone got choice product placement in the hands of series star Jennifer Garner.
However, Mr. Braun said the product placement and sponsorship deal with Nokia came after the pilot was made for the show. “It was really a totally organic outgrowth from the show,” he said.