The Little Picture: Network Reality Backlash

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When the TV genre that dare not speak its name was first invoked last week, it was during the film montage that opened the NBC upfront presentation. There was Tom Brokaw, doing one of those staged-interview promo things that would cause heads to roll if any print journalist were caught doing one.
Brokaw was heard only for the length of a sound bite: “This,” he said, referring to his network’s coverage of the war in Iraq, “is reality TV.”
Actually, war in Iraq is known as “news.” But the point was clear-and reinforced in materials handed out by NBC, The WB and CBS and in a joke told Tuesday by Jimmy Kimmel at the ABC upfront.
“Reality … that’s taboo around here,” said Kimmel. “From now on it will be referred to as `s**t.’ “
Reality has rarely intruded on the happy boosterism of upfront presentations past. Still, it was remarkable how long network executives could spend talking to advertisers and the media last week without acknowledging the elephant right there in front of them.
“I don’t want to pretend that reality doesn’t have a place at NBC,” said Jeff Zucker as he stood on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, speaking against a dollar-green background. The NBC entertainment chief added, however, that reality shows are mostly used by his network “in the summer, to keep the lights on.”
Oh ho ho, chortled the competition. The next morning, WB sales chief Bill Morningstar whipped out a chart showing that the Peacock filled 36 percent of its schedule between November and April with kiddie talent contests and other reality fare. (Of course, you had to turn to the last page of the WB’s 16-page press release to learn that its tawdry tandem of High School Reunion and The Surreal Life had been renewed.)
And the next day, CBS honcho Leslie Moonves-who confirmed his status as the last don of the upfronts by appearing in a Godfather parody-lumped NBC in with ABC and Fox as purveyors of “the old bait-and-switch,” which his merry band of marketers illustrated with a graphic projected over his shoulder. It showed the words “Scripted Programming” being covered up by an enormous bandage labeled “Cheap Reality.”
Moonves, actually, could crow about other networks’ reality programs because he’s got Survivor. And everyone had just seen the Amazon edition finish with a bang three nights earlier, as host Jeff Probst showed once again why he should’ve been hosting the cast reunions all along.
Moonves also made no apologies the next day for UPN’s new summer reality show, America’s Next Top Model, a k a American Ogle, in which eight impossibly well-contoured women live together while their number is pared down to one future supermodel. The program actually led off the UPN upfront; clearly, as far as Moonves is concerned, being profitable means never having to say you’re sorry.
At the other end of the contrition scale was ABC, which has been holding an apology tour for its stunningly ill-advised decision to schedule six reality shows in the teeth of February sweeps. At a Tuesday morning press conference, ABC boss Lloyd Braun said, “Having a reality-laden network is not a great business.”
Poor ABC-their executives say no-no-no but their upfront says yes-yes-yes. An opening clip reel of returning programs made prominent use of both scripted and unscripted shows-not just The Bachelor but that icky Extreme Makeover as well. The network also announced a four-hour wedding special between Bachelorette Trista Rehn and her draftee hubby Ryan Sutter.
But some were willing to be charitable toward ABC-and by extension all networks bold enough to program reality. Emerging from the CBS upfront, comedy writer Lee Aronsohn was beaming from the network’s decision that morning to give Two and a Half Men, the show he co-created with Chuck Lorre, the coveted post-Raymond slot on Monday night.
“God bless ABC,” said Aronsohn. “They single-handedly made my profession valuable again.”