Real world will oust reality TV

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Call the stage hand. It's getting time for the curtains to come down. TV's amateur hour, as one critic has dubbed the reality phenomenon, has reached the 30-minute mark.

Now, I may seem rash predicting its demise on a week when "Survivor" was the Nielsen's champ, and when the songbirds of "American Idol" perched at Nos. 3 and 4. But if you look beyond the established hits, there's a definite softening. Ratings are dramatically down for former reality first family "The Osbournes," as well as celeb cousin "The Anna Nicole Show." And two projects so tawdry they seemed destined for ratings glory, "Are You Hot?" and "Married by America," are languishing in the bottom 50. In fact, "Are You Hot?" reportedly can't sell out its ad slots - with big advertisers appalled by the fleshfest (or perhaps the low ratings).

Simple economics dictates the phenomenon will run its course. TV executives, apparently forgetting the law of supply and demand (not to mention the flameout of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"), have scheduled a record 42 new "unscripted dramas" to bow before September. Nor can they afford to feed the phenomenon long-term: Studios make their real money in syndication fees, and no one wants to watch reality reruns.

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More important, the real world is rapidly encroaching on primetime. After Sept. 11, even "Survivor" took a ratings tumble, as Americans sought comfort in character-driven fiction. With war - and its real horrors and privations - looming, how many more nights will viewers find it entertaining to watch people endure a contest involving large needles and unscripted screaming, as on last week's Fear Factor" (currently No. 7 - but who's counting)?

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