Networks Return to Reality in New Year

Jan 1, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Chris Pursell and James Hibberd

Reality is poised to regain its prime-time luster during the second half of the 2006-07 television season.

As Fox prepares to unleash a new season of powerhouse reality series “American Idol” Jan. 16, the network and two of its competitors are beefing up their lineups with other formats based on successful British series.

ABC, NBC and Fox are planning series based on concepts that were road-tested on the BBC in the U.K.: ABC is planning a series featuring Shaquille O’Neal, loosely based on BBC hit “Ian Wright’s Unfit Kids”; NBC is getting ready to tape a version of BBC game show “Fortunes,” which features contestants trying to convince millionaires to give them money; and Fox is teaming up with Gordon Ramsay, host of its “Hell’s Kitchen” series, on a new series, sources close to the productions said.

In addition, ABC and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions recently announced a pair of unscripted projects set for a network launch, the tentatively titled “Oprah Winfrey’s The Big Give,” and “Your Money or Your Life,” the first two prime-time series to come out of Harpo’s television development group.

The craze over quickly and cheaply produced reality programs in recent years cooled during the last couple of TV seasons as scripted fare such as “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House” and “Desperate Housewives” struck chords with viewers. Following the successes of those hours, networks poured a large portion of their resources for this season into pricey new dramas.

But several of the new efforts bombed on many fronts this fall.

“American Idol” and the other new prime-time series queued up for midseason come not only in the wake of expensive scripted flops but also just months after NBC executives announced they will try to stick to low-cost fare in the network’s 8 p.m. time slots.

In its fifth season on Fox last year, “Idol” proved that relatively inexpensive but proven reality fare can generate huge audiences and keep them coming back for years.

The show, which debuted in the U.K. on ITV and is now seen in more than 35 territories around the world, was the most-viewed show of the 2005-06 TV season and the most-viewed outing of the show in the U.S. to date, with an average 34 million people tuning in, according to “American Idol” Web site.

Giving further reason for network executives to direct their attention to reality programs, ratings for many unscripted series across prime time continued to hold well in the overall television landscape this season, despite slips by aging veterans such as “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”

In addition to “Idol,” ABC dominated the fall thanks in part to “Dancing With the Stars,” while NBC continues to get significant ratings mileage out of “Deal or No Deal.” To a lesser extent, NBC’s “Biggest Loser” is a solid performer, and is a similar format to the show starring Mr. O’Neal.

Shaq Fights Fat

The highest profile name of the pack from the three new series, Mr. O’Neal, will host a series tentatively titled “Shaq Attacks Obesity” for ABC.

The show will follow the form of RDF Media’s “Ian Wright’s Unfit Kids.” It will feature Mr. O’Neal working with a group of unfit teens in an attempt to change their couch potato ways into a healthy active lifestyle. With up to eight episodes to be taped, the series is expected to become family-friendly programming for ABC.

ABC could not be reached for comment.

The series marks Mr. O’Neal’s second foray into an unscripted television series. The basketball star previously had a series on ESPN called “Shaquille” in 2005 that ran six half-hour episodes.

NBC’s “Fortunes” will offer members of the public the chance to convince a panel of five multimillionaires to give them money to make their dreams come true.

The series will present an opportunity for any member of the public to apply and pitch for the cash and be judged by the panel in a studio showdown.

Hopefuls can apply online looking for money for any reason: football tickets, a new car, plane fare to Hollywood, an engagement ring, plastic surgery or even just fixing the roof, according to the network. Contestants will then be invited to pitch in 60 seconds to the panel of wealthy donors why they deserve of the windfall.

“Fortune” is executive produced by Bruce Beresford Redman (“Survivor,” “The Contender”), Richard Hopkins and David Mortimer of Fever Media and Paul Telegdy, senior VP, programming and production, BBC Worldwide.

NBC declined to comment on “Fortune.”

Fox is sticking to a face it knows well, chef Gordon Ramsay. The cranky chef has been the focal point of Fox’s summer series “Hell’s Kitchen” and now the network has picked up 10 episodes of “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” from Granada Media, according to a source close to the series.

A Fox spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The series is expected to be similar to the BBC version of the show in which the chef attempts to save a different restaurant from financial ruin every week. Mr. Ramsay is expected to tackle everything from incompetent restaurateurs and waiters with bad breath to chefs who insist on deep-frying everything. After prodding a turnaround within seven days, he will return a month later to check progress.

“I’ve opened up the doors to my kitchens in the past, now there’s going to be some serious criticism of how other people run theirs,” said Mr. Ramsay on a Web site dedicated to the BBC series.

In ABC and Harpo’s “Give,” 10 people will be challenged through eight episodes to take the money and resources they are given and multiply them to come up with the most powerful, sensational, emotional and dramatic ways to give to others. Each week the group will face a “big catch” that will test their nerve, drive, ingenuity and passion, according to the network.

In “Your Money or Your Life,” families facing a life crisis will need to make drastic and immediate changes before they are consumed by disaster. In every episode, an expert action team will move in and viewers will watch a dramatic total money and life makeover.

“These two shows are a perfect fit for our alternative brand with their focus on wish fulfillment and making lives better,” said Stephen McPherson, president, ABC Entertainment in a statement last month.