A New Reality: Strike Changes TV Channels

With Tinseltown's storytellers confined to the picket lines, broadcast networks are loading up on unscripted entertainment, better known as reality TV.

While the central issue between Hollywood's striking writers and the studios and networks that employ them is compensation for digital media, the matter of jurisdiction for reality TV entered into this week's negotiations. Despite long-time efforts by the Writers' Guild, most unscripted shows aren't covered under the current contracts, making them attractive programming options during the current stoppage and providing networks leverage at the bargaining table.

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One need only look at the upcoming lineups of Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, General Electric's NBC, News Corp.'s Fox, CBS and the CW to see the deluge of "reality" scheduled to hit broadcast airwaves. According to TVtracker.com, a Web-based resource and consulting service to the TV industry, the five networks collectively have 48.5 possible hours of reality fare in their mid-season pipeline. If the strike drags on, count on that number to shoot up.

"No one says that this is, or even hopes that this is the answer," says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at media buying and consulting firm Katz Television Group, of the reality-heavy schedules. "This is a stop-gap to get us from here to there."

To be sure, many of the upcoming series would have aired with or without a stoppage, given the genre's surge in popularity (can you say American Idol?), to say nothing of its cheaper price tag. But with scripted series like ABC's Desperate Housewives and NBC's The Office already halted, and the remaining poised to dry up by early 2008, networks are increasingly dependent on reality fare.

Consider NBC: On Jan. 3, the fourth-place network will roll out an updated version of ratings-challenged The Apprentice, featuring 14 barely-recognizable stars. Among them: actor Stephen Baldwin, model Carol Alt and former Apprentice Omarosa. Rather than compete for a gig with The Donald as previous Apprentice contestants have done, this crop is battling it out for camera time--er, charity.

Just three days later, the network will roll out an updated version of the stunt man-vs.-amateur competition series American Gladiators, hosted by wrestling legend Hulk Hogan and boxer Laila Ali. The show's tagline: "The Ultimate David and Goliath Battle Returns, Bigger and Badder than Ever!" (Bigger and badder, huh?)

Over at Fox, new reality offerings include When Women Rule the World, featuring alpha females and macho men (read: pigs) battling for power in a female-dominated world, and Moment of Truth, a game show in which contestants are asked a series of highly personal questions (Think: Do you really care about starving children in Africa? Do you like your mother-in-law?) while connected to a polygraph machine. To win, they simply have to--you guessed it--tell the truth.

Also in the realm of, well, somebody's reality, the CW has readied two more series: Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants and The Farmer Wants a Wife. The former, a mother-daughter beauty pageant in which the sure-to-be-catty teams shack up together; and the latter, a British import, features 10 city girls competing for the love of a good 'ole country boy.

But TVtracker.com Vice President Carolyn Finger says a central worry heading into the reality-heavy season should be viewer fatigue. "You can't just build a schedule around reality programming."

Consider Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the genre's cautionary tale. Though it remains on air during little-viewed daytime hours, the once-popular quiz show was pulled from its prime-time spot once viewers grew tired of its seemingly constant airing and stopped tuning in.

Even NBC Reality Chief Craig Plestis agrees there's a balance to be struck. "We shouldn't have one over the over," he says of scripted and non-scripted programming, "we need both." For its part, NBC will offer original episodes of Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Medium, as well as the new series Lipstick Jungle.

For Dan Cutforth, who, with Jane Lipsitz, runs Magical Elves, the production company behind reality hits like Top Chef, Project Runway and Project Greenlight, the inundation of reality poses a concern beyond audience backlash. The way he sees it, while reality TV is still considerably cheaper than its scripted counterpart, that gap is closing. And with more work, care of the current stoppage, the cost of production will likely only go up--and stay up.

"Ultimately, if reality television isn't cheap, there isn't much value in it for a network," he says, of a genre that's historically had little repeat value, "unless it has either huge audiences or huge prestige." And if the since-canceled Skating with Celebrities and My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Boss are any indication, the latter is rare.