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Unscripted Series All the Rage at TCA

Jan 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Broadcast networks may be stinging from the performance of last fall’s failed reality efforts and re-embracing scripted programming, but the unscripted genre showed no sign of waning on cable at last week’s Television Critics Association semiannual press tour.

From ABC Family’s behind-the-scenes look at a wedding chapel in “Las Vegas Garden of Love” to Lifetime’s “You’re Not the Man I Married” to Comedy Central’s “Con,” cable networks presented flavors of unscripted fare.

“Cable is the originator of reality television and though the shows with real legs are scripted, we’re continuing to pursue reality to bring in the younger demographic,” said Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer, who presented a panel at the Universal City Hilton on the network’s paranormal reality show “Ghost Hunters.”

Cable’s door also remains open to smart scripted entries as well. TLC Executive VP and General Manager Roger Marmet predicted that as cable budgets continue to rise, broadcast’s renewed interest in scripted programming will eventually spread to cable.

“The broadcast networks have always had the flexibility to go back and forth, and I think a lot of cable networks will start to take that risk as well,” Mr. Marmet said. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Among the new reality efforts unveiled last week during the cable portion of the press tour were several celebrity-centric shows. TV Land’s “Chasing Farrah” follows Farrah Fawcett, and Spike TV’s “Invasion Iowa” stars William Shatner playing a twisted version of himself. MTV’s entire TCA slate was celebrity reality: “Trippin”‘ is a travelogue with Cameron Diaz, “Meet the Barkers” follows Blink-182’s Travis Barker and the “Nick Lachey Project” is a spinoff of “Newlyweds.”

HBO even had a scripted show about a reality show-“The Comeback,” starring Lisa Kudrow as a sitcom star who participates in a reality show with disastrous results.

“Nothing is more humiliating than reality cameras photographing people,” Ms. Kudrow said.

Following the rapid ratings decline of programs such as TLC’s “Trading Spaces” and Bravo’s “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy,” the one reality style that was markedly absent from the network sessions was the makeover show.

BBC America President and CEO Bill Hilary even blamed the format for his network’s recent ratings decline.

“Over the last year, we’ve had our ratings slip mainly because we were really depending on makeover shows,” Mr. Hilary said. “I want to make sure we put drama and comedy right back in the center of BBC America.”

Even TLC, a network whose audience was built on makeover shows, is trying to find programming beyond the format. Mr. Marmet announced several new non-makeover reality shows such as “Super Agents,” about the luxury home real estate market of Miami, and “Mind Games,” a reality show about a magician.

“TLC’s always been unscripted. We’ll continue along the same path, but in a different vein,” Mr. Marmet said. “We’re exploring new genres.”

In addition to the reality series announcements, most networks broke some other sort of news during their executive sessions. G4techTV changed its name, BET changed its tag line and CNN’s Headline News changed its entire prime-time lineup.

Increased clout and show budgets in cable also added a higher level of star talent to the proceedings than in previous years, with actors such as Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Neve Campbell, Ving Rhames, Ben Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Halle Berry, Glenn Close and others scheduled to appear.

The most innovative session was put on by Scripps Networks, which broke with TCA tradition by offering a series of interior sets within its ballroom, each decorated to suit various shows and featuring performances by lead talent from channels such as Food Network and Fine Living.

Among the more lively panels was Showtime’s “Fat Actress” session where, despite having what several critics perceived as a weak pilot, star Kirstie Alley apparently managed to win over the crowd. When asked when she became aware of having “a really serious weight problem,” she replied, “when you just told me I did.”

Ms. Alley’s panel was cut short and the schedule was blown into disarray by the arrival of R&B artist Usher, who is promoting his upcoming Showtime concert. Usher’s SUV parked on the curb outside the Hilton ballroom and he issued a “now or never” ultimatum about going onstage, TCA sources confirmed. While sitting conformably atop a red velvet throne during E!’s session for its upcoming talent showcase “The Entertainer,” a very different performer, Wayne Newton managed to make his competition reality show sound convincingly like a noble enterprise.

“I’m not a dream killer,” he said. “The more people that we can produce that have the ability to bring people to see them, [it] helps the entire entertainment picture.”

Meanwhile, the formidable Mr. Rhames was brought to tears during NBC Universal’s session while promoting USA Network’s police drama remake, “Kojak,” while discussing the “trap” faced by inner-city youth.

In another NBCU session, for Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica,” actor James Edward Olmos repeated his infamous assertion from last July’s panel that hardcore former fans of the series should avoid the remake. “If you were really a staunch believer in the original show, you’re not going to find anything interesting in this show,” he said. “And therefore, don’t come to watch it.”

Though whining about the host hotel is a TCA tradition, complaints reached a fever pitch at this year’s stay at the Universal City Hilton. A stinky press room, dismal dining, a lack of online connectivity options and unheated session ballrooms were among the chief complaints.