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Tuned In: With 'Joe Millionaire' ratings high, Fox thinks itself not so dumb

Monday, January 20, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Sometimes we get the television we deserve.

Evan Marriott, left, of the Fox reality show "Joe Millionaire," and Paul Hogan, who played a butler on the show, speak at a session during the Television Critics Association press tour in Hollywood Saturday. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

Fox has tried to launch smart programs over the past two years -- "The Tick," "Undeclared," "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," "The Bernie Mac Show" and "24" -- but they've generated little ratings momentum. "24" became a hit in its second season, but "Bernie Mac" is struggling, "Andy Richter" is as good as canceled and the first two series were dropped last year.

One respected TV director said Fox's plan going into this season was to avoid anything too smart. It's a sad strategy, but one that has some logic given the interests of the American viewing public, which made "Joe Millionaire" (9 tonight) a hit.

Evan Marriott, Joe Millionaire himself, either acquitted himself well in a press conference Saturday or he's a better actor than anyone thought.

Marriott defended his reported $19,000 salary last year, saying he worked construction for only three months after the economic downturn that followed Sept. 11. He denies and takes in stride tabloid reports that he's gay and a woman-hater but seems to have a complex about not graduating from high school or attending college.

"I'm the only grandchild in my family that never went to college," Marriott said. "For me not to go to college, let alone graduate from high school, kind of bummed [my parents] out."

"Joe Millionaire" has made Marriott famous, but its premise -- a guy lies about his income to 20 female contestants -- brings up questions of ethics. Fox executives defended the show's lie-based premise.

"When people get involved in these unscripted shows, they know that they're in for a ride," said Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman. "There are a lot of twists and turns that are going on on all of the reality shows now, and I think the way we look at it is a fun entertainment. ... The women who participated in this show had a good time; they're all participating in the post-show activities."

Earlier this month, "Joe Millionaire" kicked off a week of highly rated reality show premieres, prompting one studio executive to call it a watershed in the history of prime-time television.

High ratings for "Joe Millionaire," "High School Reunion," "Star Search" and "The Surreal Life" were surprising, but everything in TV is cyclical. The latest batch of programs owe their existence to the success of "American Idol" and "The Bachelor." "Meet My Folks" returns tonight on NBC, and tomorrow "American Idol" premieres its second season on Fox.

"Idol" judge Simon Cowell said so many bad singers audition for his show because they simply don't know how terrible they sound. "Everyone in the world now wants to be famous, and what they don't understand is you need something called talent," Cowell said Saturday.

Clearly the drive for celebrity on the part of reality show participants and the glee of viewers to mock those participants is part of the appeal of these series. It's one reason they will probably never go away completely, but chances are they won't remain as dominant as they are currently.

Reality shows work because they're an easy sell to viewers. In most cases, rather than inviting commitment to a program for a full season, many run for as few as six weeks.

For networks, they offer a quick ratings spike. It's no wonder the networks most closely associated with this type of programming, Fox and ABC, are in the worst ratings straits.

But financially, reality shows don't make sense in the long run. They were cheap alternative programming three years ago, but as networks come to rely on them more, producers have networks over a barrel and are able to command greater license fees. Worse yet, there's no back end. Studios lose money when they produce TV shows for airing in prime time. Only in syndicated reruns are millions made.

"[Reality shows] have no syndication value whatsoever," said CBS president Leslie Moonves, whose network airs "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race."

Jordan Levin, Entertainment president at The WB, said reality series give networks a short-term gain, but they can be long-term problems. Just look at ABC, which got a ratings jolt from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" but also rode that series too long and in too many time slots without developing any other hits. When viewers lost interest in "Millionaire," ABC went from first to worst.

"Short term, it gives you a great circulation. It allows you to expand what viewers expect from the network," Levin said. "But long term, these are not series that create characters. Those types of emotional relationships are what really form the connectivity between us and our audience."

Susan Lyne, Entertainment president at reality-heavy ABC, said reality shows are attractive to networks for several reasons, perhaps most importantly because they draw the young, hard-to-court viewers advertisers crave. She also said reality shows have an appeal that's similar to the reason people watch sitcoms.

"What has been appealing about the whole family comedy concept for decades is that it gave people a chance to see their lives reflected on television, and that's what people get from these reality shows in an even bigger way," Lyne said. "People like to see the minutiae of their lives explored in a much more dramatic and ultimately satisfying way."

Moonves called reality shows "instant gratification."

"It is a quick hit. They can change the fate of a network probably quicker than a drama or a comedy can," he said. "I don't know that I would call it a watershed, but you sort of understand why people are doing them the way they're doing them."

Moonves predicted double-digit increases in the number of reality shows on some networks come fall, but just as imitators of "Survivor" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" came and went quickly, the cycle will turn again when there's a new scripted hit.

One sign that reality won't completely consume television? Reality producers are now developing scripted series. "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett will film a comedy pilot for The WB next month called "Are We There Yet?" about a family touring Europe. He's also working with "Survivor" host Jeff Probst on a scripted comedy series about stars of reality shows. Mike Fleiss, creator of "The Bachelor" and "High School Reunion," is working with Amy Heckerling ("Clueless") on a half-hour comedy that will be heavy on celebrity guest stars.

Reality 'Sitcom'

In the meantime, networks will keep trying new reality show variations. At 8 tonight, ABC Family unveils its latest effort, "My Life Is a Sitcom", in which eight families vie to have their life stories made into a televised situation comedy. It's kinder and gentler reality TV, to be sure.

A sitcom writer was sent to spend a week with each of the families and a jury of sitcom star peers -- Maureen McCormick ("The Brady Bunch"), David Faustino ("Married... With Children") and Dave Coulier ("Full House") -- offer commentary on the family profiled each week. At the end of eight weeks, judges will pick two semi-finalists to audition in Hollywood. The winners will star in a pilot episode of a proposed series based on their lives.

Tonight, viewers meet the Mozian family of Connecticut, headed by an unemployed Mr. Mom, who tries way too hard to be funny.

"When he wasn't trying to be funny, he was really, really funny," McCormick says, but too often, the guy's doing shtick.

"My mother-in-law is French, so even when she talks to herself, she's rude and offensive," Joe Mozian says in tonight's premiere.

At a press conference earlier this month, executive producer/host David Perler said the resulting sitcom, which will air as the series 10th and final episode, will hew closely to the winning family's way of life.

"The winning family's home will literally be replicated in a Hollywood sound stage," Perler said. "And the characters, the dialogue, everything that you see these people going through and ultimately the finished product, which is the sitcom, will be based on the reality show that you saw with the family."

More midseason on Fox

"Married By America" (8 p.m. March 10): Two single men and two single women allow the viewing public to play matchmaker in this new reality show.

"Oliver Beene" (8:30 p.m. March 9): An 11-year-old in the early '60s copes with his crazy family and the threat of atomic annihilation.

"The Pitts" (9:30 p.m. March 30): Bizarre show about a family, headed by actor Dyland Baker, who have bad things happen to them constantly. In the premiere, a priest exorcises Satan from the pre-teen son.

"Wanda at Large" (9:30 p.m. March 26): Comedian Wanda Sykes, so funny on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," gets a distressingly pedestrian sitcom, playing a loud-mouth woman who works for a Washington TV station.

Media literacy

Last month, Trio, a satellite and digital cable network (Channel 137 on some AT&T Broadband systems), aired brilliant but canceled TV series. Now the little network seems to carving out a niche as a boutique for going behind the scenes of critically acclaimed programs.

Wednesday night, Trio airs the first two episodes of "TV Out of The Box," a documentary series that pulls back the curtain and allows viewers into the rooms where writers and producers craft some of the best programs currently on television.

At 8 p.m., Trio examines FX's hit cop drama "The Shield." It's followed at 9 by a one-hour look at the making of the last episode of "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." It's a fascinating hour of television, because it really does allow viewers into the writers' room to see how a script changes and how lines of dialogue that don't work get replaced (look carefully and you'll see Pittsburgh native and Paramount Television executive Brett King, brother of KDKA anchor Patrice King Brown, laughing during the so-called "table read"). It's an intimate look at the creative process and a must-see for anyone with a love of quality TV and an interest in how it gets made.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen has been attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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