Reality, it turns out, isn't all it's cracked up to be.
At least not when it's made-for-TV.
If there are any lessons to be gleaned from the latest slew of so-called reality TV programs being sent in to replace roughly a third of the season's 30 new shows, the first is that reality needs just as much help as any drama or sitcom to turn it into a hit with audiences.
"If a show is done well, executed well, and it's compelling and dramatic, and has the right kind of pacing each week, people will stay with it," says Mark Burnett, creator of what is rapidly becoming the "Survivor" franchise. It's less the genre, he adds, than the storytelling qualities that counts.
What might seem obvious to some, however, is not to others. Witness the latest round of imitators: "Temptation Island," "The Mole," "Popstars," and "Survivor: The Australian Outback," all vying to recapture the summer success of CBS's "Survivor."
Some might suggest that programmers could have learned something from the nearly complete flameout of last season's attempt to recapture summer fire. After "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" rejuvenated ABC's 1999 summer schedule, game-show knockoffs were everywhere - and then nowhere - to be found.
Network executives say they can't afford to get behind the competition. "We have a responsibility as network programmers to satisfy the taste of our audience," says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Entertainment Television Group.
"Everybody's doing their best to try to react to this issue of audiences [who] clearly having a huge appetite for that kind of programming. And we're all trying to do it as responsibly and appropriately as we can."
Mr. Grushow points out that the label isn't entirely accurate: "The word 'reality' isn't even a good word anymore. I think it's 'nonscripted programming.' "
This distinction is not mere wordplay. It highlights another reason why reality programming keeps coming back in one form or another: It's cheaper to produce (no pricey writers to pay), and it's attractive to networks, given the threat of a writers' and actors' strike this spring, when contracts expire.
Although they acknowledge that the reality craze may last for a while, members of the Writers Guild of America take a long-term view. Unscripted programs have been around for many years, says Michael Mahern, secretary-treasurer of the Writers Guild of America, West. "They just tend to cycle through in different forms," he points out. For example, reality TV dates back to "The Loud Family" in 1973 and later with MTV's "The Real World" in 1992.
"I don't think reality programming is going to disappear," he says. "It will ebb and flow. But, personally, I don't regard it as a big danger because the players involved really do not see reality programming as the way to (a) build an audience or (b) make money for its studio.
"A network," Mr. Mahern says, "really builds its core audience through fictional programming."
He points to the disappointment that CBS encountered when the audience that tuned in for "Survivor" didn't stay tuned for its other programs. Reality programming, he adds, "is a one-time event. You're not establishing any long-term value."
Fictional programming, on the other hand, continues to produce value. "You can not only run it once, but twice, usually on your network. You can sell it overseas. You can run it on cable. You can run it in syndication. You're going to be getting value out of that product for the next 20 years."
Cycles are inevitable and even good for TV, say some industry insiders. "It's OK to be nervous about" reality TV, says Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Television. "It makes us all better.... It makes our writers look at the current climate and reach deeper into their souls for that inspiration that's going to cut through the clutter." While unscripted work can shake writers up, Ms. Walden says, "I do think ... quality scripted programming will prevail."
And there's even reason to hope that while this cycle of reality programming runs its course, it could yield an unexpected benefit for viewers. In the search for something new, "There could be a return to highly innovative, hard-hitting documentaries and news programs," says John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at ad agency Campbell Mithun. "These were once the hallmark of network TV and have been nearly abandoned."
These shows, dating from the earliest days of network TV (such as Edward R. Murrow's documentary "Harvest of Shame" in 1960), "were the original 'reality' genre of TV," he says. "The ironic and sad fact is that while the ability to gather and disseminate news from around the world has never been better, the amount of compelling 'real' reality has never been less."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society