Reality Programming Still a Hot Topic at TCA

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If the Television Critics Association Press Tour last week is any indication, the furor over reality programming still hasn’t died down.
David E. Kelley blasted it. ABC executives admitted they made mistakes with it. Fox executives said it allows them to take risks with their scripted series. And Steve Harvey’s trying to capitalize on it at The WB.
Mr. Kelley-who went through a very public spat with ABC’s top brass when the network moved his show “The Practice” from Sundays to Mondays and saw the ratings plummet against Fox’s “Joe Millionaire”-had harsh words for network and studio executives who don’t seem to have the same love for scripted programming that they had before.
“There’s been an erosion of respect for the medium by its guardians,” Mr. Kelley said.
He said network and studio executives used to be in the business because they wanted to make great TV shows and movies, and that now they are just beholden to the bottom line. He cited reality television as the worst example-networks have always run reality shows because they make economic sense; they just didn’t talk about it. “Today they celebrate their junk,” Mr. Kelley said. “As long as they can get high ratings, they will do it. And where once they were ashamed of it, now they’ll throw a parade for themselves.”
Mr. Kelley wrote an episode of “The Practice” last year starring Andie MacDowell as a crazed reality TV fan in response to his frustration with reality TV. He said he sat down to watch Fox’s “Joe Millionaire” because it was going to be “The Practice’s” new time slot competition. His wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, was sitting next to him reading a book and asked him what he was watching. After about 20 minutes of watching the show in disgust, he picked up the remote to change the channel, but Ms. Pfeiffer wouldn’t let him. “She said, `Wait, wait! I want to see if that bitch comes back,”’ Mr. Kelley said, adding that at that point he knew the reality show would be a hit.
ABC, home to “The Practice,” was one of the worst offenders last spring when it threw on half a dozen reality shows that were bashed by critics, including “Are You Hot?” and “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!”
ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun and ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne admitted they made numerous mistakes, including an over-reliance on reality programming and getting caught without enough scripted midseason replacements-something that won’t happen again, they said.
“We’ve promised each other that we’re going to be very militant with one another to exercise restraint and patience throughout the year, because it gets easy to think you have something in your back pocket that’s a quick fix,” Mr. Braun said. “Hopefully a year from now you’ll be able to say, `You know what? You guys lived up to that promise.”’
While reality can be a quick boost, Mr. Braun said, “Nothing is as profitable as a hit scripted comedy or drama.”
When asked whether reality TV has hit its peak, Ms. Lyne said, “It’s on its way down until the next big hit comes.”
Fox’s top entertainment executives said they will continue to use their reality hits, such as “American Idol” and “Joe Millionaire,” to help their scripted shows find audiences-and not just as a lead-in.
Because their reality hits deliver such huge ratings, they give the network the ability to be more patient with underperforming quality shows, said Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group. “It does give us the ability to grow these shows and continue to embrace these shows,” he said, pointing out that critical hits such as “24” and “The Bernie Mac Show” turned into viewer hits last year.
At The WB, Steve Harvey was embracing reality and hoping the trend would be good news for his new variety show “Steve Harvey’s Big Time.” “Reality TV is big right now, and people love to see regular people getting [their] shot and watch them either do great or fall on their face,” Mr. Harvey said. “And people tune in to see that.”
With the exception of drama “The O.C.,” Fox will roll out the majority of its new schedule after the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series end in October, Fox executives said.
Every year baseball presents a problem for Fox because it interrupts the first six weeks of the traditional TV season, making it hard for new shows to build traction. By experimenting with starting “The O.C.” on Aug. 5 and having returning shows anchor six nights of the week, Fox executives are hoping they can change that this year.
“The good news is that the schedule which the network is returning this year is significantly stronger than the schedule that was launched last year,” Mr. Grushow said.
Mr. Grushow appealed to the TV critics to write about “The O.C.” and tell their readers that this is a scripted show that the network believes in and not a summer burnoff. Viewers have long been conditioned to marginalize summer series because networks have used the season to run out failed shows.
“Keen Eddie,” which debuted in June as part of Fox’s strategy of running scripted series year-round, faltered in the ratings despite good reviews. Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said the network has not made a decision on whether “Eddie” will come back, but it would have to show some growth in the ratings for that to happen. “It’s awfully hard sitting here today, looking at a 2 rating in the 18 to 49 demo, to say, `Let’s make 22 more of these things,”’ Mr. Grushow said.
Mr. Grushow said it was a risk to put on a quirky show like “Eddie” when the American audience flocks to procedural shows such as “Law & Order.” But he said taking risks is what Fox is all about. “I’d much rather be taking those shots than trying to make the `Good Morning, Miamis’ of the world,” he said.
Although its ratings have been nowhere near “American Idol’s,” a second edition of “American Juniors” is still on Fox’s fall schedule on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m., Ms. Berman said. “It’s winning its time period solidly” and is a good solution to the gap between baseball and the next edition of “Idol,” she said.
However, Mr. Grushow did leave open the possibility that the second edition of “Juniors” could move off the fall schedule if necessary. “If another opportunity presents itself between now and November that we believe is significantly stronger than `American Idol,’ then we’re definitely going to strongly consider that,” he said.
While executives talked to critics inside the Renaissance Hotel at Hollywood and Highland, members of the Japanese American Defamation League protested outside, charging that Fox’s new half-hour show “Banzai” is racist. Ms. Berman said the show is a parody of Japanese game shows and that the network and affiliates have received very few complaints about the show.
“We think the show is hysterically funny” and didn’t intend to offend anyone, she said. “We’re sorry some folks feel that way,” she added.
The most packed session of ABC’s two days of press tour was for an 8-year-old show-David E. Kelley’s “The Practice.”
The dismissal of half the cast of “The Practice” was a creative decision to reinvigorate the show, Mr. Kelley told TV critics. The exception was the departure of Dylan McDermott, who played Bobby Donnell for the past seven years, he said.
Mr. McDermott’s deal was conditioned on the license fee for the show remaining the same, but ABC and producers David E. Kelley Productions and 20th Century Fox Television agreed on a license fee about half of what it was for last season.
“The economic realities dictated that we’d have to make cuts, so we did,” he said.
With eight-year salaries for the original cast members who were all still with the show, the salary costs were too high to add new characters that he felt could help the show creatively, Mr. Kelley said. In addition to Mr. McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle, Marla Sokoloff, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Kelli Williams won’t return next year.
Making phone calls to the dismissed cast me
mbers was “the toughest day I can remember careerwise,” Mr. Kelley said. Mr. McDermott was the most upset, and rightly so, Mr. Kelley said, because Mr. McDermott had been flown to New York for ABC’s upfront presentation to advertisers, and then let go three days later.
James Spader and Rhona Mitra were added to the cast, and producers are in final negotiations with Sharon Stone to do a three-episode arc next fall. ABC did kick in extra money for guest stars, Mr. Kelley said.
Mr. Kelley said he decided to keep Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Jessica Capshaw because those characters’ story lines were the ones he gravitated to at the end of last season.
ABC executives knew when they renewed the show that Mr. Kelley was going to make cast changes for creative and financial reasons, but they were “more significant than we thought early on,” Mr. Braun said. However, he said ABC was on board with Mr. Kelley’s creative vision. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said.
Mr. Braun wouldn’t go so far as to call moving “The Practice” to Mondays last season a mistake, despite the disastrous ratings results. He said “maybe” ABC made a mistake, but given the other option of launching three new dramas on Monday night without an established anchor show, it still might have been the right choice. “That’s not to say that’s an excuse for this, because we recognize that we did some harm to `The Practice,”’ Mr. Braun said.
Despite being upset with ABC for moving “The Practice,” Mr. Kelley did admit that the move magnified some of the show’s creative weaknesses. “We have to ask ourselves, Why isn’t our audience passionate enough to follow us to Mondays?” he said. “I hear that.”
The WB
Steve Harvey’s happy to be back on The WB with his new variety show “Steve Harvey’s Big Time,” despite comments he made at a previous Television Critics Association Press Tour accusing the network of paying him less money because he is African American.
At the time, Mr. Harvey said The WB wouldn’t pay him as much money to star in his sitcom “The Steve Harvey Show” as it would a white lead on a lower-rated series. “Now I’m back in bed with them,” he joked at a panel to promote his new show. “That pretty much makes me a ho at this moment.”
Mr. Harvey said he has a good relationship with The WB. “I was dissatisfied not with The WB as much as television in general,” he said. “The problem we have in television is strictly economics.”
African Americans watch more TV than the general population so advertisers won’t pay a premium on shows with African American casts because they know they can reach that audience in broader-based shows such as “Friends” or “Monday Night Football,” Mr. Harvey said. Until advertisers value the audience enough to pay the same money for a spot in an African American show as a show with a white cast, things won’t change, he said.
After an executive session, WB Chairman and CEO Jamie Kellner said the advertising disparity is not a race issue. He said high costs-per-thousand are driven by hard-to-reach audiences. For example, The WB has had double-digit CPM increases in the past few years because it reaches a younger audience, especially in the 12 to 34 demo, that isn’t watching as much TV.
Mr. Kellner also said that when Mr. Harvey was starring in his sitcom on the network, he was one of the highest-paid actors on The WB.