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Ups And Downs Cloud Future Of Reality TV

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After a season in which most new non-scripted programs have underperformed, conventional wisdom might assume broadcasters would cut back production on reality shows for next year. That may not be the case.

American Idol's fourth season premiere on Fox last week proved that reality still can pack a punch. The two-hour debut drew 33.6 million viewers and scored a 14/33 among adults 18-49. With upsides potentially as big for other unscripted programs, many advertisers believe reality is hardly in decline. "Reality still doesn't have the development and production costs associated with scripted programs," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, svp at Starcom Entertainment. "The payout can be so huge for a relatively small investment."

The networks are already in development on more than a dozen new reality shows. ABC's The Scholar, set to premiere later this year, features 15 high school seniors competing for a college scholarship. Also at ABC is Brat Camp, about nine troubled teens building self-esteem.

CBS is working on The Cut, a fashion design contest show hosted by Tommy Hilfiger, and The Next Great Rock Star, Mark Burnett's search to find a new lead singer for Aussie band INXS. On NBC's docket is The Law Firm, a legalese contest show from David E. Kelley; a reality sitcom in which Tommy Lee returns to college; and a search for the next cast member of Saturday Night Live.

Yet disappointments this season have taught TV executives some lessons, including the importance of quality programming. At the winter TV critics convention in Los Angeles last week, CBS chairman Les Moonves admitted his misstep in airing The Will, which was canceled after one broadcast. Long on the shelf at CBS, it featured members of an extended family vying for its patriarch's vast estate. "It wasn't our finest moment," Moonves told reporters.

Other underachievers include ABC's The Benefactor, NBC's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search, and almost every new non-scripted show Fox launched last fall, from The Casino to The Next Great Champ to My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss to Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best.

At the critics convention, Fox entertainment president Gail Berman acknowledged that the quantity of reality shows may be as key to the genre's continued success as their quality. "I do think we had a substantial amount of our schedule be unscripted, and certainly that was problematic for us," she said.

But rather than sounding the death knell for reality, some advertisers believe the non-scripted failures—as well as the successes—are crucial to the genre's evolution. "Each network is continually learning what their viewership wants in reality," said Frances Page, principal of strategy and business affairs for Magna Global Entertainment. Page noted that high failure rates are common among scripted comedies and dramas, too. And unlike scripted series, Page said, reality remains a relatively young genre. Thus, the networks are still figuring out not only what works, but how much works.

For the week of Dec. 5, non-scripted programming comprised 19.5 percent of the prime-time schedule, up 7 percent from the same week a year earlier, according to Magna Global's analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. That figure could drop if Fox pursues a less reality-driven schedule next fall. Also contributing to a possible decrease is ABC's success with Lost and Desperate Housewives. As all the networks clamor to find their own versions of these scripted hits, the scales could tip away from reality next season. "The more scripted shows that work, the more that time periods for reality go away," said ICM talent agent Steve Wohl.

Even if a retrenchment of sorts were to occur next season, franchises like Idol, Survivor and The Apprentice aren't likely to disappear anytime soon. The same may not hold true for ABC's dating franchise The Bachelor/The Bachelorette. Despite efforts to re-invigorate the series—including moving the show to New York from Los Angeles—its ninth iteration premiered earlier this month to declining numbers, drawing 9.1 million viewers and scoring a 4.3/10 among adults 18-49.

"We're trying everything possible to keep it feeling fresh," said Andrea Wong, evp of alternative programming at ABC Entertainment. But with dating-show variations including Fox's Joe Millionaire, NBC's Average Joe, UPN's The Player, and the WB's Big Man on Campus, ABC's once-unstoppable franchise also may be TV's most imitated. "That tires out the format," Wong admitted.

There have been some nonscripted successes this season. ABC's Wife Swap and its Extreme Makeover franchise remain strong, while NBC's The Biggest Loser surprised many analysts with a solid showing. But the season's lows seem to be outweighing its highs. Ultimately, it may not slow production, but it has had a sobering effect.

Whereas last season saw a mad rush to pick up any show with the word "reality" in its description, the networks likely will be more discerning about the projects they develop. Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal's cable entertainment president, who continues to oversee reality programming at the network, said, "People aren't going to order just for the sake of ordering."

Moonves agreed. "When you have this many failures, people aren't going to think that reality is the magic bullet they once thought it was," he said.