Rivals Armed With Reality, Reruns

Aug 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

They may not win as many ratings gold medals as NBC, but broadcast competitors are making plans to counterprogram more than two weeks of Olympics coverage from Athens, Greece, with a special eye toward viewers who quickly tire of all that pole-vaulting and weightlifting.

“The notion of counterprogramming is a little bit of a folly,” said Kelly Kahl, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for CBS and UPN.

Still, in these games, the other networks have a few tricks up their sleeves.

For the most part, CBS will stick with its winning summer strategy of repeating successful comedies and procedural dramas and running new episodes of reality shows “Big Brother” and “Amazing Race.” “We’ve had a great summer so far, and I think having our regular shows on is probably our best offense,” Mr. Kahl said.

Reality isn’t a bad option for a network looking to appeal to nonsports fans, many of whom are female. The trick is, as always, to come up with series that have strong appeal. The genre tends to attract younger viewers, who are usually the audience least interested in Olympics programming. This helps explain why CBS has no plans to pre-empt either “Big Brother” or “Race.”

“We’ve seen through the years the reality shows do fairly well,” Mr. Kahl said. “Having a younger audience skew, they actually compete fairly effectively with the Olympics.”

That strategy is also in play at UPN, where “Amish in the City” launched with strong ratings last week. UPN will air new episodes though the Games. UPN’s dating reality show “The Player” begins airing this week. Mr. Kahl said both premieres had less to do with launching before the Olympics than counting backward from a finale that ends right before the 2004-05 shows premiere.

“It was more of a strategy of ending it prior to the start of the season and backing out,” he said, noting that the size and scope of the Olympics makes it inevitable that a network would be running new summer programming against the games. “The Olympics take up three weeks of space, so it’s impossible to really avoid them,” Mr. Kahl said.

It is also the reason Fox is expected to do stunt-programming with its successful reality shows. For instance, it expects to run a marathon of “Simple Life 2,” which has consistently pulled in viewers.

But Fox isn’t stunting everything. The network will protect its newest reality hit, “Trading Spouses,” by pre-empting it during the Games.

Fox is also putting up sports against sports with two preseason football games.

The competitors are also counting on viewers tiring of all the Olympics choices and looking to the tried-and-true. A reliable schedule on another network makes it easy to find more traditional programming. The WB is all repeats, aside from airing two original episodes of the new southern-themed sketch comedy show “Blue Collar TV.”

A spokesperson for ABC said, “We’re not doing anything drastic” in response to the Olympics, but films that play well with younger demos, such as “Road Trip,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Jurassic Park 3,” are all on the schedule.

Even with increased competition, it’s not like the last few weeks of the summer are make-or-break for any network, since the focus is on gearing up for the new season. “In the summer you tend to be slightly less aggressive than you might be in the Winter Games,” Mr. Kahl said.

But for NBC, which is using seven of its broadcast and cable platforms to air the Games, the stakes are high. NBC is promoting its new fall shows throughout the Olympics as part of its plan to launch the new fall season earlier than usual.

The question is whether the Olympics really help launch new shows. In 2000 NBC hoped the Games in Sydney would propel its new fare. Two shows promoted during the Games were off by mid-November. The Olympics flame doesn’t always burn as brightly as some hope.