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Reality Reaches Plateau

Mar 31, 2003  •  Post A Comment

While the latest crop of reality shows have tanked in the ratings, network executives aren’t changing their reality programming plans just yet.
They say viewers haven’t cooled to reality-it’s just the process of natural selection where viewers are weeding out the good from the bad.
“There was a sense for maybe a week or two that you could put on anything and it would work as long as it was reality,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning for Fox Broadcasting Co. “That’s very shortsighted thinking and flies against the history of the business. Unscripted programs are no different than scripted programs. Good ones work. Bad ones don’t.”
Following on the heels of hit after reality hit shows such as American Idol, Joe Millionaire and The Bachelor, all the networks rushed to put even more reality shows on the air. Things didn’t work out as they expected.
ABC’s Are You Hot?, All American Girl, The Family and Profiles From the Front Line, Fox’s Married by America and NBC’s Let’s Make a Deal and Meet My Folks all premiered in the past two months to poor ratings. Profiles and Let’s Make a Deal have already been pulled from the schedules, and The Family was shelved until summer.
“Expectations were completely out of whack that every reality show is going to do a 10 rating,” said Andrea Wong, head of ABC’s alternative series. “That’s never going to be the case.”
Some blame the lack of originality of many of the recent series and the glut of having so many of them on at the same time competing for the same viewers’ attention.
“Joe Millionaire, Bachelor, Fear Factor, Survivor were all part of a landscape of television that didn’t have much of that on the networks,” said Jeff Gaspin, head of alternative programming at NBC. “Within the context of scripted comedy and dramas they felt different and new. When you put on six or seven at a time, the novelty is not there. That does wear thin for the viewer.”
ABC is perhaps the worst offender of reality overexposure. Within four weeks, ABC introduced four new reality shows. None of them broke out from the pack. The highest-rated of the bunch, Are You Hot?, has averaged a 3.9 rating and 9 share among adults 18 to 49-a far cry from the 7.9/19 and 7.8/18 The Bachelor and The Bachelorette averaged, respectively.
Ms. Wong said part of the problem was how the shows were marketed and launched. The network didn’t capitalize on the success of its hit Bachelorette, which had its finale on Feb. 19, to launch the reality shows that premiered in the following weeks.
“You can’t just roll these shows on the air,” she said. “You have to launch them well and promote them well and you can’t just promote them on the network. You have to go to cable and outside to find these viewers. If you want to launch a reality show successfully, you need to launch it within a successful one like The Bachelor.”
Going forward Ms. Wong said ABC’s goal is to launch reality shows more strategically. “At the same time I cannot argue with the fact that we needed all of these [current reality shows] to improve time periods and that’s why they were put on our schedule, and they have done that job in every single case,” she said.
Are You Hot? improved the Thursday 9 p.m. time period by 63 percent in adults 18 to 49, while Profiles improved the 8 p.m. Thursday time period by 25 percent in the demo.
Interruptions for war coverage in the past two weeks didn’t help any of the four series, but all of them were on a downhill trend before being pre-empted. Are You Hot? now finishes its run early on Saturday, April 5, with a two-hour finale; Profiles was pulled with three unaired episodes, and The Family will be relaunched in the summer. All American Girl will continue to run in its current 10 p.m. Wednesday time slot.
Ms. Wong said ABC believes in The Family. Relaunching it in the summer will give it a new opportunity to attract viewers, much like when ABC pulled The Mole 2 in the middle of its low-rated run and moved it to the summer, where it ended up doing well enough to justify a renewal.
Fox can claim the biggest reality hit of the season with Joe Millionaire, which averaged 22.9 million viewers and a 12.1/28 in adults 18 to 49. However, when Married by America moved into that Monday 9 p.m. time slot, those viewers didn’t carry over. Married is averaging 7.6 million viewers and a 3.7/9 in the demo. Mr. Beckman said the network never expected it to perform anywhere near Joe Millionaire’s level, but admitted that in retrospect Fox might have done a few things differently in the first few episodes to get the show moving. “It’s too bad in this business you can’t have do-overs,” he said.
The first three episodes took place in a studio with friends and family members interviewing and eliminating prospective suitors for their loved ones. The following episodes follow the newly engaged couples as they live together and get to know each other. “The last two weeks the show has really kicked in,” Mr. Beckman said. “It’s `as entertaining’ as Temptation Island, as Joe Millionaire.”
Despite the cooling off of ratings for reality, development of unscripted series hasn’t cooled by any means. “It’s still going to be a business that all the networks are going to want to be in because when you have the potential of a Survivor or a Joe Millionaire or American Idol, those are shows that are making a lot of money,” said David Garfinkle, a partner in Renegade Productions, which produces The WB’s Surreal Life and the syndicated Blind Date. “They’re breakout shows and they’re still relatively inexpensive compared to some of the other scripted series. It’s still a good business model.”
Ms. Wong said ABC is still aggressively developing reality programming and has not backed off from it. NBC, which plans to air about a dozen reality series in the summer, is staying the course. “The summer is a completely different market,” Mr. Gaspin said. “When colleges let out there are a whole crop of viewers that don’t watch traditional network fare during the year. We gear our summer programming to the 18- to 34-year-old audience vs. an older audience in season that’s a typical NBC audience.”
Mr. Beckman said Fox will continue its strategy of using reality shows to launch or buoy scripted shows, as evidenced by the network’s move last week scheduling American Idol spin-off Junior Idol as the lead-in to the drama Keen Eddie, which will air Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. starting June 3.
“We’re going to be aggressive in the summer with these shows but we’re not going to clutter our schedule with them,” Mr. Beckman said. “We’re not a one-trick pony. We’re doing everything we can to use these shows to get scripted shows off the ground.”