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Networks Say Fall Lineups Will Keep a Grip on Reality

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Reality television has been the rage of the February sweeps for the broadcast networks, attracting young, upscale professional viewers and ensuring the genre will continue to be a vital part of the programming landscape for the foreseeable future. But will the networks overplay the reality card in assembling their fall 2004 season lineups? So far, network programmers insist they know the limits of the genre.

Some reality shows are a lock: CBS' Survivor, Fox's American Idol, NBC's Fear Factor and ABC's The Bachelor/Bachelorette are schedule staples and proven magnets for adults ages 18-49. The latest hit, NBC's The Apprentice, is averaging a whopping 9.3 rating in the demographic. But media buyers cautioned that their tolerance for reality shows this fall will not extend to copycats or untested new ideas.

"If a scripted show flops in the fall, there is nothing wrong with replacing it with a reality show," said Steve Sternberg, evp, director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA in New York. "But the danger is if the networks begin to put more reality on the fall schedule while cutting back on their scripted development. It's the one thing that still distinguished [them] from cable."

Rino Scanzoni, president of broadcast at Mediaedge:cia in New York, said that for a reality show to work, the concept has to be innovative, with either "compelling storytelling" or strong entertainment value, and it cannot be a "knockoff of some other show." Scanzoni added that he would be more likely to buy time on a reality show in the upfront from a producer with a proven track record or on a show that first aired with successful numbers in mid-season than on a first-time reality show.

Stacey Sepatin, svp, director of national broadcast at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos in Boston, said ratings factor only partially in buyers' choices. "The environment of the show is important, as is the buzz factor the show has," said Sepatin. "I don't think Fox will want to anchor a night [this fall] with The Littlest Groom, which was just a sweeps stunt."

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker conceded that networks must present a balanced schedule of scripted and nonscripted programming, noting that NBC this fall will start with, at most, three nonscripted shows—including Fear Factor and The Apprentice. "We'd certainly not be shy about adding a third hour, but no more than that," said Zucker, adding that NBC's current crop of reality programming draws "more upscale [viewers] than our dramas, comedies or newsmagazines."

Andrea Wong, svp of alternative series and specials at ABC, said the network most likely will stick with its established reality shows, such as The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover, this fall, and it will develop new reality projects to air in mid-season or as backups. A Fox representative said that network is producing as many scripted pilots this season as it has in each of the last two.