Since CBS's "Survivor" rushed to the top of the Nielsen ratings three years ago, network executives have known that reality shows can be enormously popular. But this week convinced them that the shows will drastically alter the economics of the business itself, according to a story in the New York Times on Saturday.
Executives from all four major networks watched in awe as reality shows won 15 of 18 half-hour time periods on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and finished second in the other three time slots, the Times notes. "American Idol," on the Fox network, led the way, drawing 25 million viewers two nights running and becoming the most-watched nonsports shows in the network's history.
The success of shows like "American Idol," "The Bachelorette" on ABC and "Joe Millionaire" on Fox was so impressive that numerous executives told the Times they were now ready to embrace plans for a radical restructuring of the network business, which previously had been talked about only as dimly possible, long-term adjustments.
Not only will reality shows continue to flood network's schedules next fall, but television executives are also predicting such developments as an end to the traditional television season. Instead of the time-honored formula of introducing shows en masse in September and ending them in May, broadcast networks want to stagger the shows' debuts and banish repeats from the schedule almost entirely, the Times reports.
There could also be fewer orders for dramas and comedies, with a resulting shrinking of jobs for Hollywood writers and actors. And, perhaps most significant, executives are preparing for a fundamental rewriting of the economic model underpinning network programming.
"The world as we knew it is over," Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television, told the Times, exaggerating for effect, but only, says the newspaper, a little.
Gail Berman, the president of entertainment for the Fox network, echoed that sentiment. "The 50-year-old economic model of this business is kind of history now," she said to the Times.
Of course, the historically cyclical television business is no stranger to pronouncements of fundamental change. Just a few years ago, when "Dateline NBC" became a multiple-night ratings hit, newsmagazines were supposedly set to take over many of the time slots given to hour-long dramas, the Times points out. Today, all the newsmagazine shows are suffering declining ratings.
Still, the surging popularity of reality shows has convinced many executives that the burnout of one-time ratings champions like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" will not be the fate of the reality genre, the Times says.
They point to the shows' overpowering appeal to young viewers, who have watched reality shows in far bigger numbers than anything else on television and are the consumers most coveted by advertisers. There is also evidence of positive ratings among another sought-after group: upscale viewers.
Far from worrying about the implications of this swing in audience tastes, network executives are generally ecstatic about the development, the newspaper reports. The network television business has been battered for years by defections to cable channels, and executives welcome the arrival of more viewers, particularly younger ones, the Times explains.
Executives pointed to numerous series that were considered hits on cable channels last year, like "The Osbournes" on MTV and "The Shield" on FX, seeing their ratings plunge this season, while each broadcast network has had at least one hit reality series.
And a shift to a 52-week schedule, with new programming on every network during the summer, could serve to counter one of the long-established strategies of cable networks: to steal away viewers while networks take their summer vacations, the Times adds.
Reality shows have also proved hospitable to the product-placement opportunities television networks have been selling to advertisers, the newspaper says. Searching for ways to thwart any trend toward skipping commercials on programs recorded on personal video recorders like Tivo, the networks are increasingly integrating their sponsors and their products into the shows themselves, rather than limiting their presence to commercials.
Following their own familiar script when confronted with new hits, network executives are planning many more reality series.
The result of all the network maneuvering could be a rewriting of the industry's practices, the Times asserts.
The network programming system has been based largely on the creation of scripted series by Hollywood studios. They are the ones that maintain large staffs, sets and equipment, hire actors and writers, and produce weekly episodes at considerable financial deficits, counting on future sales of repeats to provide profits. Reality shows are not repeated, but they cost far less to produce in the first place (because they have no costly writers or actors).
And since they give networks a way to win viewers at much lower prices, they can make more money than some first-run dramas and comedies, as well as low-rated repeats.
"It's the big question," Moonves of CBS remarked to the Times. "What's the future of scripted programs versus reality?"
He seemed to answer the question himself, noting that this surge by reality shows comes precisely at the time that the networks are beginning the process of ordering pilots for next fall. "I think people will be ordering fewer drama pilots than they thought they would only a week ago," Mr. Moonves said.
And there may be fallout from that decision, Moonves said. Numerous jobs could be affected. One senior Los Angeles-based program executive, who insisted on anonymity, told the Times: "Writers are petrified. This could change the whole economics of this town. Studios have to be scared to death."
Dana Walden, the president of 20th Century Fox Television, a leading production studio, said she was not despairing. `It's just a very cyclical business," she said. But she acknowledged that scripted television had not produced many hits lately. Only one, "C.S.I." on CBS, has managed the feat in the last four seasons.
Many of the executives emphasized that they were far from abandoning the scripted series as the backbone of network schedules. Several network executives said they would not consider cutting back on budgets for developing scripted shows, citing ABC's calamitous decision to do that when it had "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" showing as many as four nights a week. When that show tumbled in the ratings, the network did not have promising shows in the pipeline to replace it.
Even as the networks revel in the success of the reality wave, however, a quiet minority expressed some reservations.
"It feels a little like the stock market," Lloyd Braun, the chairman of ABC Entertainment, told the Times. "Those who put all their money into this might end up looking foolish in the end."