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Tuned In: Reality shows get ripped on TV critics press tour

Friday, July 25, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Writer

HOLLYWOOD -- If you hate "reality" shows, you're not alone. "The reality trend makes me puke," said a forthright Aaron Spelling, a longtime producer of popular TV dramas, few of them critically acclaimed. "We have been approached many times about doing it. We're not going to do it, at least not as long as I'm alive."

Carl Reiner ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") is no fan either.

"Most of these reality shows, they're an embarrassment," Reiner said. "I think they're dumbing-down America."

Even David E. Kelley, who isn't old enough to be legitimately crotchety, wrote an entire episode of "The Practice" earlier this year that was a screed against reality television. He was inspired, in part, by ABC's decision to move "The Practice" up against Fox's hit "Joe Millionaire," which trounced the drama. Kelley found reality TV invading his home as his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, took an interest in "Joe Millionaire."

"I was sitting at home and my wife was reading a book next to me and I put it on and she looked up about 10 minutes into it and said, 'What are you watching?'

"I said, 'You know, it's the competition against "The Practice." I would at least like to know what it is.' About 10 minutes after that, I picked up the remote to change the channel, and she said, 'Wait, wait, wait. I want to see if that [witch] comes back.' I knew 15 minutes into it, this show is a monster hit."

Kelley said he's concerned that bad television, once shunted aside, has come to the fore and diluted the ranks of creative network executives concerned about quality.

"It's a business. No one's denying it's a business. But the people in charge of this business, and by that I probably mean the studios and the networks, at one time at least championed the idea ... that we get to make this fantasy world that we're proud of and we want to bring to the American public," Kelley said. "That was the dirty little secret: Yeah, but we have to put this other stuff on the air because we have to pay our bills. But they didn't talk about it. Today, they celebrate the junk. ... Where once they were ashamed of it, now they'll throw a parade for themselves. That's where my frustration has been growing."

Of course, ABC got greedy this past winter and spring, throwing too many reality shows on the air that flopped in the ratings and proved an embarrassment to the network ("Are You Hot?" "I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Outta Here!").

"We did learn lessons from that," said ABC Television Entertainment Group chairman Lloyd Braun, who appeared before critics last week with ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne. "Reality television is subject to the same laws as every other type of television. The good shows survive and the shows that aren't good enough, don't. ... We also learned a lot about sticking with a strategy and not getting greedy. And we've promised each other that we're going to be very militant with one another to exercise restraint and patience throughout the year because it gets easy to think you have something in your back pocket that's a quick fix."

CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves called "Survivor" and "American Idol" the Rolls-Royces of reality shows. Where do other series fit in the car brand analogy?

"Well, 'Amazing Race' is probably a Cadillac," Moonves said. " 'Big Brother' and 'Cupid' may be a Chevy Impala. ... But, by the way, I'm very happy to have a couple Chevy Impalas in my garage, too."

But he's not always fond of discussing his Impalas. The current fourth edition of "Big Brother," which features Western Pennsylvanians Alison Irwin and Justin Giovinco, has included sex acts by participants (although more emphasized in the online live Internetcast than on TV) and a discussion of genital warts suffered by one house guest.

"I can't believe we're talking about this at press tour," Moonves said at one point during a Q&A with TV critics. "We'll talk about this on the side, OK?"

But as executives from virtually every network stressed in the past two weeks, the best shows survive. One that's yet to premiere certainly qualifies as immensely entertaining. Fox's "The Simple Life" takes wealthy young heiresses Paris Hilton (descended from the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain) and Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel Richie) and deposits them on a farm in Arkansas.

The results are hilarious, and because it's culturally OK to laugh at the rich, so far no one is greeting this reality version of "Green Acres" with the same protests that have marked CBS's proposed reality take on "The Beverly Hillbillies."

"[Reality shows] are a very relevant form to the young adult audience," said Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president. "[With 'The Real World'], MTV has tuned a generation of young viewers into this habit."

"The Simple Life" was set to debut in mid-August, but Fox is now so confident about its success, that the network is gambling that "Life" can draw a crowd opposite original scripted programming this fall. A new time slot and premiere date have not yet been announced.

TNN makes switch

TNN will finally make the name change to Spike TV at 9 a.m. on Aug. 11. The switch was supposed to happen in June, but then Spike Lee filed a ridiculous lawsuit, claiming the network's new moniker was based on his nickname (his real name is Shelton Lee).

In the Post-Gazette's TV Week, the switch to Spike TV will probably take place with the Aug. 17 issue.


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

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