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Facing reality: Questions of safety, legitimacy -- and even skyrocketing costs -- haven't slowed network enthusiasm for reality programming

Sunday, September 02, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

There's no escaping it: As a genre, reality television is here to stay. Oh, it may not be as ever-present as it will be this fall, but just as sitcoms and dramas have become regular staples, "reality" TV shows no sign of abating.

Despite a lawsuit that claims manipulation, millions of viewers will show up when "Survivor: Africa" premieres Oct. 11 on CBS. And even though a playfully knife-wielding contestant marred "Big Brother 2" in its early weeks, an upturn in ratings may pave the way for its return next summer.

On Wednesday, NBC premieres "Lost" (8 p.m.) and CBS trots out "The Amazing Race" (9 p.m.).

"Lost" drops six people into the middle of nowhere and forces them to pair up and find their way back to the Statue of Liberty. On "The Amazing Race," 22 people take off in pairs from Central Park on a globetrotting adventure.

Later this month, Fox joins the fray with "Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage," a dating game on the high seas.

"Survivor" meets "The Dating Game" with a heaping spoonful of "Chains of Love" in The WB's "Elimidate Deluxe" (premieres Oct. 11). In each half-hour episode, four suitors attempt to win the hand of a lucky single, who casts them off until only one remains.

At midseason, The WB sets "No Boundaries," which sends 15 people backpacking for 30 days through America's most rugged and beautiful terrain.

That's just the new stuff. Past reality shows will return: ABC's "Mole II: The Next Betrayal" (premieres Sept. 21), Fox's "Temptation Island 2" (Oct. 31) and The WB's "Popstars 2" (Oct. 4).

Though the genre remains relatively young, it's already splintered into sub-genres: relationship shows ("Temptation Island," "Love Cruise"), adventure shows ("Fear Factor," "Murder in Small Town X") and hybrids that combine elements of both ("Survivor," "The Amazing Race").

Each iteration comes with its own detractors. Some people hate relationship shows for the way they manipulate people's emotions for entertainment. Others despise the adventure series because some ask normal people to perform dangerous competitions normally reserved for stunt professionals.

The combo series get criticism from every direction, whether it's PETA objecting to the spearing of a pig on "Survivor" or the complaints that are likely to greet "The Amazing Race," which appears to depict Americans driving in an unsafe manner in foreign countries.

Producers of relationship series defend their programs by attacking the adventure shows.

"We felt there was an opening here for a show that focused on relationships, that didn't focus on having to cook rats or eat bugs," said "Love Cruise" executive producer Jonathan Murray.

There's also the "holding a mirror to the audience" rationale.

"The show is interesting in a soap opera kind of way," said Chris Cowan, executive producer of Fox's "Temptation Island 2." "It shares a lot of drama characteristics -- it's just unscripted. And it's dealing with people who are more like the audience than anything else."

Producers explain the popularity of reality shows by touting characteristics they share in common with scripted series, regardless of the impact on real people vs. fictional characters.

"In scripted television, you're trying to create really interesting characters and get the audience to really get vested in them and know them and then live through their experience with them," said "Popstars 2" executive producer David G. Stanley. "In what we are doing on the reality side, we are trying to do the same thing, which is portray real people in situations where you get to know who they are and live through an experience with them so you see real emotion."

Some viewers and literal-minded critics object to the term "reality TV" altogether, but it's the descriptor that's taken hold (some newspapers insist on the synonymous term "unscripted drama"). Of course, shows like these aren't reality, just as MTV's "Real World" isn't real.

That's especially true on NBC's "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV," which put contestants in contrived situations. "Fear Factor" puts contestants not only in contrived situations, but also in places they'd never willingly go, like a rat pit.

"Fear Factor" even tests the squeamishness of some network programmers. In July, ABC programmers declared their reality shows will be "rat free."

Instead, ABC is readying "The Runner" for January, a show that comes with its own set of possible complications. With Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as executive producers, "The Runner" features contestants who cross the country attempting to "hide" from viewers who apply to be agents who "seek" the Runner out along the way. (Producers were in Pittsburgh yesterday recruiting potential Runners and Agents.)

But what if an overzealous fan tries to stop a runner by pulling a gun?

"Security is a huge concern," admitted Lloyd Bruan, co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group. "We've done everything in our power to make sure the show is as safe as it should be and will be."

Affleck's response to the question was more direct during a July news conference.

"What's to prevent me from tackling you right now?" he asked a reporter. "The game is not geared around catching the guy and holding him. ... What's to prevent that is there are police officers, and we have laws, and you're not supposed to run people over with your car."

Safety concerns aside, there are also questions about how legit some reality shows are. Original "Survivor" contestant Stacy Stillman is suing CBS over what she believes was manipulation by that show's producers. Just last month, UPN got into its own imbroglio over restaged scenes in the summer burn-off series "Manhunt."

In July, before "Manhunt" aired, UPN president Dean Valentine said his network would not pursue reality programming that tries to up the ante on previous potentially dangerous stunts.

"One of the reasons we tend not to do that kind of reality programming is when we were doing one -- I won't say which show -- I started worrying about someone getting hurt," Valentine said. "And we canceled it because I couldn't face the thought of someone getting seriously hurt. At some point in my own head, I draw a line. I'm not quite sure where it is, but I know I'm starting to get uncomfortable with where the envelope has gotten pushed."

Don't mistake Valentine for a saint, though. He's happy to push conventions "psychologically or with the social issues we deal with," but he draws the line when it comes to physicality.

"We don't want to push the envelope in terms of being the first network to have somebody killed on our air," Valentine said. "That would not be somewhere I'd want to go."

CBS was probably in no real danger of that happening when a contestant on "Big Brother 2" playfully put a knife to the throat of another player, but CBS dismissed the knife wielder from the show just in case. At a July news conference, CBS executives dodged questions about their feelings toward the show, instead defending it as "an experiment."

"I'm tired of putting on 'Diagnosis Murder' reruns in the summer," said CBS president Les Moonves. "There's a quest to put on new forms of programming."

Much as some viewers like to rant and rave about what those evil network executives are foisting on the unsuspecting American viewing public, the fact is, we're watching.

Ratings for "Big Brother 2" are on the rise, especially among younger viewers. In spite of the rats, or perhaps because of them, young viewers made "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV" hits. Both will return later this year on NBC.

"There is a younger audience principally under the age of 35 that is telling us something about what they're looking for," said NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker at a July news conference. He said young viewers respond to scripted programs like "Will & Grace" and "Malcolm in the Middle," but they're also looking for something different. "They've grown up on MTV and ESPN, The X-Games rather than the Olympics, O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky as entertainment and video cameras in their hands. That's what they're responding to.

"In growing the network as we move forward, if we ignore this part of the audience that likes these programs ... and we don't have programs that bring those viewers in, where are we going to be in five years when nobody under the age of 20 and 25 has been watching NBC?" Zucker asked.

Late-night host Conan O'Brien, who said he's not a fan of most reality shows, is executive producer of NBC's "Lost." He says he was drawn to "Lost" after seeing a tape of the British version of the show.

"It didn't have a lot of gimmicks. ... I think everyone can relate to it. Everyone's been lost. And we're actually going to strand these people in interesting places, so I think you'll also learn about these places as they go," O'Brien said. "There's not an element of people trying to screw each other over, which may ultimately be the flaw of this program. We tried to develop a classy version of one of these shows that didn't prey on peoples' worst feelings about each other. That may, ultimately, turn out to be uninteresting."

Action-movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer said his new series, "The Amazing Race," is also about something most viewers can relate to.

"What we tried to do is put people in a situation that all of us have been in, which is traveling. It's a nightmare, as you know," Bruckheimer said. But his show also has lighthearted moments as part of the adventure. "What separates us from the other shows is the fact that there are very humorous situations you can get into."

Producers of The WB's fall series said the negativity that's inherent in some reality programs is absent from their shows.

"They did not want a negative show," said Brady Connell, executive producer of "No Boundaries." "They didn't even want the negative elements that you find in 'Survivor.' They wanted a purely positive show, and we were quite impressed."

With past successes to bolster their enthusiasm, network executives have prepared an onslaught of new reality shows. But everything in TV is cyclical, and the reality cycle has probably already peaked for a reason that means far more than social responsibility or audience displeasure: money.

With no writers to pay, no actors demanding more money, reality shows were seen as a cheap alternative to scripted programming.

"But that's becoming less the case than ever before," said Sandy Grushow, president of Fox Television Entertainment Group.

As the series become more technically complex with expensive stunts and as the locations become more exotic, the cost to produce these series is skyrocketing.

What's worse, from a network perspective, is that they're aired only once and never get repeated, because when reruns have been tried, the ratings have been low. Plus, there's no chance to do a pilot, as there is with a drama or comedy. Network executives must commit to producing a certain number of episodes up front.

Grushow said a first-year reality show is still cheaper than a first-year drama (about $800,000 to $1 million for each episode of a reality show vs. $1.1 million to $1.5 million for a scripted drama), but those other factors are making them less enticing than they once were.

Money aside, some of the shows just don't meet the expectations of network executives. Grushow said that was a factor in not rushing the spring series "Boot Camp" back into production for a second deployment.

"It felt like 'The Mole' to me. It was successful in terms of cost, in terms of ratings and in terms of profitability, but I'm not sure if it's necessarily worthy of a second iteration," Grushow said.

One of Grushow's biggest concerns with "Boot Camp" is that it was confusing and tough to keep track of the characters.

"I like to call this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants TV," he said. "You're learning every time you do one of these things, because when we shaved everybody's head, they all looked alike, particularly the women. That certainly didn't help us."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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