May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Businessman Blake Mycoskie is starting a new all-reality TV channel. However, the former contestant on CBS’s Amazing Race is going to need some amazing grace. Launching a reality channel now is like starting a Disco Channel in 1980. Ratings for reality shows are down; The New York Times reports that advertisers are becoming “skittish”; and the new reality movie, The Real Cancun, finished a dismal 10th in box office receipts during its opening weekend.
By the time Mycoskie’s channel debuts in January 2004, reality TV may have already been booted off the island.
However, Mycoskie’s Reality Channel does plan to offer programs that will enable viewers to play along on the Net, by cellphone or via Interactive TV. Let’s say you were watching Mr. Personality, hosted by the surreal Monica Lewinsky. You could vote for your favorite masked bachelor no matter where you were on the planet. That may not seem like the equivalent of a cure for SARS, but the trend is sweeping the industry.
Several networks, including CBS, Fox, ESPN and The Game Show Network, are encouraging their viewers to use a Web-based device to interact with their shows. Viewer response has not been overwhelming, despite industry propaganda. For instance, AT&T Wireless brags that subscribers have cast more than a million text-message votes since the season premiere of American Idol in January. However, if you consider that most people voted more than once, it’s likely that actual respondents represent less than 1 percent of the total audience. If that.
But more networks are expected to launch interactive programs in the coming months. Why would they bother if so few people will participate? Three reasons:
1. The networks believe that audience participation-even on a small scale-will increase viewer loyalty and show recognition.
2. The interactive feature can attract new sponsors, such as cellphone companies and personal computer manufacturers.
3. Cable and satellite TV operators plan to roll out more TV-based interactive services in the next few years. Viewers will be able to interact without having to use a PC or a cellphone. By experimenting now, the networks will have worked out the kinks when ITV hits the big time.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.