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Are short-run reality series a long-term fix?

Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Got a Nielsen migraine? For a lot of broadcast networks, quick relief these days means more reality TV. As evidenced by the huge premiere ratings last week for Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” ABC’s “The Bachelorette” and CBS’s “Star Search,” broadcast networks are finding success using short-run reality series as medium- or even long-term solutions for certain time slots.
ABC and CBS have essentially carved a reality TV time slot into their schedules on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. and Thursday nights at 8 p.m., respectively. And Fox has followed suit, establishing a reality time slot on Mondays at 9 p.m. with the premiere of “Joe Millionaire” last week.
“Millionaire” delivered the network’s highest ratings in the time period in eight years among adults 18 to 49 and total viewers. It scored a 10.1/22 among adults 18 to 49-up 248 percent from the time slot’s average (2.9/7) so far this season. (The time slot had been home to specials and reruns following the cancellation of “girls club” after two episodes.)
A slot for reality
“We’re looking at this as the viewer will know that Monday at 9 o’clock, Fox is going to be offering these short-order unscripted series, some of which, hopefully, there will be more iterations of,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning for Fox Broadcasting Co.
After “Joe Millionaire’s” seven-week run, the network will air another short-term reality series, “Married by America,” which is being heavily promoted during episodes of “Millionaire.” Fox will finish out the season in the time slot with other reality specials.
Mr. Beckman didn’t rule out having the Monday reality time slot carry over to next season and said at some point Fox might come up with an umbrella title for these short-order shows.
On the flip side, while ABC has been successful running reality Wednesdays at 9 p.m.-“The Bachelor II” improved the time slot’s ratings by 50 percent year to year in adults 18 to 49 and 78 percent in adults 18 to 34-Jeff Bader, executive VP of ABC Entertainment, said the network isn’t intentionally turning the time slot into a reality time slot.
“We hope that some of them [reality series] are around for the long haul, but for the most part our goal is to have-all the networks need to have-more scripted programming,” he said. “It’s what advertisers are clamoring for. The big reality hits, if they stay around for two, three, four years, you’re very lucky. A hit scripted show can be around for seven, eight, nine, 10 years. Ultimately that is where we would like to be.”
However, you won’t hear ABC complaining about the “The Bachelorette’s” Wednesday debut last week. It was the highest-rated show of the night among adults 18 to 49 with an 8.4 rating/20 share and beat every episode of the “Bachelor II” installment except for the finale. “The Bachelorette” also claimed a 78 percent advantage over its closest competitor, NBC’s “The West Wing” (4.7/11), which was the perennial No. 1 in the time slot last season.
“We have now changed that [Wednesday] landscape completely,” Mr. Bader said. “It went from `West Wing’ being by far the dominant show in the time period to `Bachelor,’ after the third week, beating it every time it was on. Once it came off we were able to put on two news specials and `Extreme Makeover,’ which all beat `West Wing’ as well. The time period sort of became ours. If we could hand that over to a scripted series, would we want to? Maybe. If our goal is to expand our scripted programming. That’s something we definitely have to look at.
Another network executive said these short-term series are a medium-term fix for a lot of time periods. “It’s more of a programming option, much like you would look at a comedy or a drama vs. a novelty, like we used to look at it,” the executive said. “If you’ve got a time period that’s been troubling you for years, you’ll gladly take a medium-term solution.”
Some of those quick-fix solutions can end up turning into longer-term solutions as long as ratings stay strong. ABC plans to run the third edition of “The Bachelor” soon after “Bachelorette” ends, and CBS has slated the fourth “Amazing Race” and sixth “Survivor” for this spring and is taking contestant applications for a seventh “Survivor.”
In the meantime, CBS scheduled an updated version of “Star Search” to fill the holes left on Wednesdays and Thursdays between editions of “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor.” While the Wednesday edition of “Star Search” last week at 8 p.m. ran an hour earlier than “Amazing Race” ran, the network still saw positive results on a night when viewers have come to expect reality. It kicked off to a time slot-winning 5.1/14 among adults 18 to 49, beating NBC’s “Ed” (4.0/1) and ABC’s comedies “My Wife and Kids” and “George Lopez” (3.9/11). “Star Search” also won its time slots in total viewers and households.
Despite the time period success of short-term reality shows, executives agreed that if a network were to schedule a “reality TV” time slot, they would have to sell it to advertisers by show, not by time slot.
“If we make a decision that we’re going to announce that Mondays at 9 [p.m.] in the 2003-04 season is a reality wheel, I believe we’re going to need to also say, `Here’s what some of the components are,”’ Fox’s Mr. Beckman said. “You might not have to name every one [show], but I believe you have to name at least one or two. I don’t think that our sales guys would say-especially this network-`Trust us, we’ll have some stuff.”’
Said another network executive, “It’s hard to believe that an advertiser would do a blanket commitment-especially as the good-taste level on a lot of these series has been more and more in question.”