Actors, scripts? TV hardly needs them anymore

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's finally over. Sort of.

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.

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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.

"What would you rather be watching 'Survivor,' or the 15th mediocre comedy about the same subject?" asks Mike Darnell, head of specials and alternative programming at Fox, home of veteran reality shows like "Cops." "It all has to do with the quality of the work," he says. "Networks are discovering that the American audience really just wants to be entertained," and viewers don't care if those amusing them were trained at Juilliard.

O'Donnell, whose rsum includes "Clueless" and "Growing Pains," says writers are partly to blame that their words aren't in higher demand. They need to "stop turning out cookie-cutter sitcoms and try to start finding the unique voices for these characters" that used to happen more frequently.

Still, he says what's new about the way nonfiction is being programmed now is that it's being done in blocks, as in four nights a week of "Millionaire."

"We view reality programming as one component to a balanced schedule," says Chris Ender of CBS. But without a doubt, he says, "if there's more reality programming on the air, there's going to be less jobs for writers of sitcoms and one-hour dramas."

Guilds say it's too early to tell what the impact will be, but "we're never happy when actors are put out of work," says Dick Moore of AFTRA, a performers guild.

Mr. Darnell from Fox says fiction has by no means disappeared from prime time, particularly on cable channels. "While we're doing reality, cable is expanding with a lot of movies, dramas, and comedies," he says, citing HBO's hit "The Sopranos."

Of course, television history is full of times when the death knell of scripted TV was sounded. In the late 1950s, quiz shows - 16 of them at one time - became popular, and a decade ago shows like "America's Funniest Home Videos" ruled the Nielsens.

Today, the longevity of the reality trend will depend on viewer preferences and, frankly, whether the shows are any good.

" 'Survivor' is a very successful show and 'Millionaire' is a very successful show," says Oscar-nominated filmmaker R.J. Cutler. But he says CBS's "Big Brother" "is a cure for insomnia." He has his own reality offering, commissioned long before anyone ever heard of a tribal council, following the lives of teens at an Illinois high school.

While Fox pulled the plug on "American High" due to low ratings, Mr. Cutler says the acclaimed program has found a new network.

Whether teens from Highland Park High School will prove more interesting than those of "Dawson's Creek" remains to be seen. Professor Jowett says that the reality trend will be around "only as long as real people are as interesting or more interesting than the professionals."

In the meantime, O'Donnell and fellow writers are waiting it out. "This too shall pass," he says. "It'll be quick, we just have to bring it back by doing better work than we are now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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