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Actors, scripts? TV hardly needs them anymore

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2000

It's finally over. Sort of.

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Last night's "Survivor" finale may have marked the end of CBS's successful experiment in so-called reality TV, but America's date with this ber-genre is far from over.

Viewers have barely said goodbye to the conniving castaways, but networks are already planning the next salvo of reality programs for the season starting Oct 2.

A half-dozen such shows are slated for 2000-01, with at least the same number in development at the net- works.

Fans may applaud all the "Real World"-esque offerings, but viewers who don't like trivia programs and extreme game shows should think about taking up reading. That's what some actors and writers may be doing.

Reality shows are "limiting the amount of shelf space for half-hour comedies," says Tim O'Donnell, an executive producer and writer of sitcoms. The five most feared words for writers have become "Is that your final answer?" he quips.

The phenomenal success of "Survivor" meant clones were inevitable, especially in Hollywood, where imitation is the sincerest form of doing business. But some TV producers and actors object to the shows, saying they take jobs from hard-working performers, who Americans once preferred to have make them laugh and cry.

The fall schedule offers some support for their concerns. At least one network, ABC, will launch the fewest new shows in its history: four.

ABC is sticking with proven hits like "The Practice" and "Dharma and Greg" and is airing four nights of ratings blockbuster "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and nonfiction programs like newsmagazines and "Monday Night Football."

While prime time trends have a way of burning out faster than a survivor's torch, all the networks are banking on reality shows lasting longer than last season's quiz-show craze. "Survivor"-like programs include NBC's "Chains of Love," where a single shackles herself/himself to four prospective dates, ABC's "The Mole," where a team must uncover the traitor among them, and Fox's "Bootcamp," where former drill sergeants put average civilians through their paces.

Saturation could quickly become an issue, with cable networks offering programs that are pushing the boundaries as well. Court TV announced this week it will debut "Confessions," featuring videotape of murderers and other criminals admitting their wrongdoing, starting Sept. 10.

Although in Europe, where many of the reality concepts originate, many shows run simultaneously, some question how American viewers will take to the all the options.

"With reality programming the question becomes, How much of it can the audience take? The answer may be that 'Survivor' is about it," says Garth Jowett, a pop culture expert at the University of Houston.

Networks defend their decision to limit sitcom and drama space by pointing out that it's all about ratings - not to mention that reality shows are often less expensive to make and rake in the all-important advertising dollars.