Reality, it seems, is better when taken as part of a balanced diet.
At least that appears to be the emerging rule of thumb when it comes to the unscripted genre of TV programming that has come to be known as reality TV.
Encompassing everything from the gross-out shows on "Fear Factor" to the making of a new "American Idol," the genre briefly tantalized TV executives as a silver bullet to cure-all their ratings woes. But a mere two years after CBS's "Survivor" and ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" dominated conversations, the genre has settled into what executives say is a more realistic niche.
"To be a network today," says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, "you have to program everything from 'The West Wing,' to 'Fear Factor.' "
Tapping into every genre without too much emphasis on one, he adds, "is what we have to do to survive."
Part of this realism about reality shows may stem from the fact that they are no longer as cheap to produce as everyone initially thought.
"When we put 'Cops' on and 'America's Most Wanted,' we were spending $135,000 in a half hour," says Jamie Kellner, CEO of Turner Broadcasting System.
Today, he says, these reality shows cost $800,000 an hour. "The threat of a strike a season back really inflated the cost of reality programming overall," says Jordan Levin, president of entertainment at the WB Network. "There are so many people doing it, it became very competitive."
Beyond that, he points out that reality TV is very hard to put into reruns. "Without the ability to repeat some of the episodes, for example, of 'American Idol' at $800,000 to $850,000 an episode, that's actually more costly, in some cases, than an hour scripted series."
Levin says he is a fan of some of the shows. "I love a lot of reality programming. I love 'Real World. I love 'The Osbournes.' "
He was even a "Survivor" fanatic for the first two episodes, but says he got "a little bored."
A lack of human values is another drawback of reality TV, he says. "A lot of the reality programming ... just shows [the bad] side of human behavior."
Nonetheless, two increasingly important factors guarantee that the genre will always have some berth on the tube. First, say network executives, this is a generation weaned on MTV's "Real World" and, increasingly, shows such as "The Jamie Kennedy Experiment" and "Big Brother."
As this audience comes of age, its members will expect to see some element of "real people" like themselves on TV.
Perhaps more important to networks, though, is the need to find creative ways to reach eyeballs with advertising.
As the major networks' share of the national audience continues to dwindle, TV executives and advertisers continue to try different techniques, such as product placement on shows, to reach viewers. And reality shows are a much better environment for this sort of blatant product pitch.
"With a 'Survivor' and 'Amazing Race,' it fits," says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS. "With the comedies and the dramas, it doesn't fit in as easily."
This fall, expect to see a combination of returning reality shows as well as a number of attempts to reinvigorate the genre. "American Idol," (Fox) concludes with its winner on Sept. 4. The same network created "30 Seconds to Fame," which debuted last month.
"Fear Factor" continues on NBC, and ABC launches "The Dating Experiment" Aug. 13. On that show, two strangers perform arbitrary tasks designed to make them fall in love.
Cable, which has mined the talents of nonpros for years, weighs in with "Dog Days," on Animal Planet, a show in which people take their canines on their daily rounds. And, in January, ABC Family will take us full circle with "My Life as a Sitcom," (recall the "Loud Family" from the '70s?) in which a sitcom writer and a cameraman follow a real family around, on the lookout for the best tidbits. The winning family out of the seven or nine competing families will get its own show.