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Stepping Back From Reality TV

Three months ago, it seemed reality had changed the television world forever. Now, it's a dirty word.

TV executives nearly trampled each other distancing themselves from the genre as ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB revealed their fall schedules to advertisers last week.

It was a telling example of how television does business. No matter how many millions of people watched "American Idol," "Joe Millionaire," "Fear Factor," "The Bachelor" or "Survivor" the past few months, the industry still doesn't trust reality.

The six networks will flood the airwaves with 38 new shows in the fall, including 20 comedies and 17 dramas.

Only one can legitimately be called reality: a talent show with comic Steve Harvey as host. The WB called it a comedy. And a talk show. And a variety show. Anything but reality.

The prevailing mood was summed up by comic Jimmy Kimmel during a short monologue at Radio City Music Hall, where ABC put on its show for the people who will buy commercials.

"We no longer call them reality shows," Kimmel said. "That word is taboo around here. From now on, they'll simply be known as (expletive)."

Reality isn't absent from the fall schedules; all of the above-named shows will be back. But while networks don't hesitate to take a chance with an unproven comedy or drama, they won't do the same with reality to start the season.

The explanation is simple. "It doesn't sell very well," said Lloyd Braun, ABC entertainment chairman.

The fall schedule announcements, called upfronts, are glamorous sales presentations. In the next few weeks, advertisers will commit to buying between $8 billion and $9 billion worth of commercials for next season.

Clients are less likely to buy a reality show until it is a proven hit, or they expect the commercial time to be much cheaper.

"We would not give it any kind of significant value or attention because it has no track record," said Harry Keeshan, executive vice president of national broadcasting for PHD, a firm that buys ad time.

Most people who decide where advertising money is spent have experience judging comedies and dramas and pricing them. They have far less experience for reality shows, which have a greater tendency to be big hits or big failures, said David Poltrack, chief researcher at CBS.

The buyers also have time to judge for themselves. Pilot episodes of next fall's shows are already circulating on Madison Avenue; reality series rarely are available that far in advance.

Then there's the "yuck factor." Some advertisers don't want their products shown after a contestant has gagged on horse rectum on "Fear Factor," or flexed muscles on "Are You Hot."

"A lot of people in management, particularly on the client side, don't really care for this kind of television," Poltrack said.

This was all true six months ago, too. But when "Joe Millionaire," "The Bachelor" and "American Idol" drew eye-popping ratings last winter, many questioned whether the business equation had changed.

Then came "Are You Hot." And "Married By America." And "Mr. Personality." And "The Family." And on and on. A steady stream of reality shows, many of them sleazy and virtually all failures, raised suspicions again.

ABC's reality binge helped make it a fourth-place network this spring, and CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves this week made sure advertisers didn't forget.

"When their shows didn't work in the fall, they quickly stuck you with cheap reality shows," he said during CBS' upfront. "It's the old bait and switch."

Sanctioning Kimmel's joke was ABC's way of pleading for forgiveness from advertisers.

"It didn't sell very well and many of the shows didn't fit our brand," Braun said. "Ultimately, having a reality-dominated network isn't a great business. It certainly can be a potent weapon, but you have to be careful that it does not become a dominant force in the schedule. We've been through that."

Making his sales pitch last week, WB President Jed Petrick also emphasized fictional shows.

"The beauty of scripted programming is it allows you to have a certain level of comfort in the environment in which your brand is presented," he said.

Same thing at NBC.

"We believe in reality - you cannot ignore it - but our strategy is to use it principally in the summer to keep the lights on," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "When you buy reality, you often don't know what you're going to get. When you buy NBC, you're buying quality."

CBS, at its presentation, used the cast of the Broadway hit, "Chicago," to sing a parody - to the tune of "All That Jazz" - with a mischievous opposing viewpoint.

"ABC, they're out of gas," they sang. "While NBC eats horse's ass."

Network executives will be watching the sales performance of one show in particular the next week, Fox's "Joe Millionaire." It was a big hit this past winter, but was based on a premise that would seem difficult to repeat: fooling women into thinking they were dating somebody rich.

Fool them once, but fool them twice? Fox has refused to give details about how a new "Joe Millionaire" will work, so ad buyers have a tough decision to make.

Fox, the network that has probably used reality most extensively and to greatest effect, stressed the genre's impact on the rest of its schedule. Both "24" and "Bernie Mac" have reached ratings highs this year, primarily because they followed "American Idol" on the schedule.

"Fox has succeeded in striking the right balance between scripted and unscripted programming," entertainment president Gail Berman said.

By David Bauder

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