Suddenly, 'reality' TV is too ... real

Viewers are losing their appetite for the genre. Instead, comedies and 'fix-it-fast' thrillers are in.

When Americans go home at night now, they are looking for comfort - especially in the form of their favorite TV shows.

Forget about new fall programs and reality series. The equivalent of tomato soup to viewers right now is the predictable haplessness of "Raymond" and the question of paternity for Rachel's baby on "Friends."

Uneasy with the news of the day, people want programs in which conflicts are resolved in an hour and the next joke is only a commercial away. They prefer story lines that don't incorporate the attacks, and some even draw the line at anything dark.

"I don't even want to watch 'ER' anymore," says Kathy Kennedy, a 20-something who works in Boston and prefers sitcom "Will & Grace." "Anything that's sad or dramatic ... it seems too much of a reality."

In recent weeks, shows that once landed squarely in the Top 20 - such as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" - have been bumped lower on the list in favor of seasoned programs such as "The West Wing." Reality programs like ABC's "The Mole" and Fox's "Love Cruise" have been at the bottom of ratings for the last two weeks, leading some observers to believe the format may not be compatible with the current climate in the nation.

"What people want in their prime time shows ... is escapism," says Joan Giglione, a lecturer in communication at California State University at Northridge. "They want something that takes them away from stress, that takes them away from danger - where reality TV puts it right in their face."

Cultural observers say the same thing is happening with movies, where familiar faces such as Michael Douglas are reigning at the box office, along with thrillers that offer closure in the space of an afternoon. But one of the biggest tests of current tastes is coming tonight - when the third season of "Survivor" goes up against "Friends."

This fall marks the first time reality shows are scheduled as part of the regular lineup on major networks, rather than replacements for failed programs or off-season fillers. Poor performance by such shows might have happened without Sept. 11, with market saturation and uneven quality. But some observers say the attacks couldn't help but have an effect.

"Sept. 11 erodes the appeal of reality programming. I don't think it destroys it," says Neal Gabler, author of "Life: the Movie." A big draw of these shows was suspense, he says. Now, "suspense is the last thing we want. We live in suspense."

Polls taken since the attacks bear out that claim, with only 17 percent of 500 respondents saying they'd be likely to watch reality programs, and 57 percent saying they would watch comedies, according to a survey by Initiative Media taken Sept. 21 to 23.

Television viewers talk about having no patience now for shows that involve backstabbing, when the country is trying to work together, or trivial matters such as couples

hooking up. "I find the people on them whiny and self-involved," says Jessica Auger, another Boston 20-something. For her, comfort in recent weeks has come from watching "Law & Order" - another Top 20 show.

Historically, after major events - like the assassination of President Kennedy - people eventually returned to their pre-tragedy preferences, says Mr. Gabler. "People were traumatized, but it didn't mean we didn't watch the gun play anymore," he says. "We overestimate the impact of a single event on culture."

Though the novelty may be naturally wearing off, some involved in producing "unscripted" shows say the genre isn't dead yet. Casting continues cautiously, and ideas for new concepts are still being generated. "This idea that reality programming is dead is incredibly simplistic and naive," says Jonathan Murray, a creator of MTV's "The Real World" who also helped develop "Love Cruise."

Mark Burnett, the executive producer of "Survivor," which at times has drawn tens of millions of viewers, told reporters last week that his series will live on because of its quality. "If it is successful," says Mr. Murray, "there will be a feeling that reality programming does still work."

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