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ANALYSIS: Broadcast Networks Eyeing Reality Rut

Virtually all of the broadcast networks' most veteran reality shows are having the time of their lives, but given the lack of new powerhouses in the genre, the major networks' unscripted future looks bleak once the current hits finally pass on.

The big existing franchises are connecting with audiences as well as ever. Take the season premiere of ABC's Dancing With the Stars, which last week posted the best premiere ratings in the franchise's history. Or the latest, revived edition of The Bachelor, which earlier this month drew its best finale ratings in years. American Idol, while seeing some ratings decline, continues to be television's top show. And Survivor, too, is still performing, prompting CBS recently to order a 19th and 20th edition.

But the networks should enjoy it while it lasts, because unscripted reinforcements are nowhere to be found. No new reality show on the level of the franchise players has broken out in years on the big networks. DWTS, the youngster of the bunch, debuted in June 2005. And while viewers may find their old favorites comforting in these tough times, one thing has proved to be true about television: TV shows, like everything except Cloris Leachman, eventually get old and die.

Reality, of course, is not alone in experiencing a new-hit drought. “It's not just reality television, it's television,” says Paul Telegdy, who joined NBC Universal in January as executive VP of alternative programming, NBC and Universal Media Studios. “It's just been very, very hard to break through with new shows, full stop.”

Reality, however, accounted for six of the top 25 shows in the 18-49 demo last season, so it's an important element in primetime plans. And though it is a cable mainstay, reality is crucial to broadcasters. That's because it represents their best opportunity to air broadly appealing shows at a low cost. Minute-for-minute, no other genre can be produced as cheaply as reality.

As the networks each prepare their next new reality swings, most of which will be taken in the summer as usual, executives and producers alike are checking the list of factors that have plagued primetime in recent years. “Everyone is in the bunker,” Telegdy says. “It's a bit like the start of a campaign season. A bit of an adventure.”

The best pitches will stay far away from the derivatives and keep in mind the “broad” in broadcast, says Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming for Carat: “Usually what hits is something that hasn't been done before, with broad appeal.”

Network executives say they still see way too many “Frankenstein” pitches, concepts that compile elements that worked in other shows and add up to what producers hope will be a foolproof sale. But really, they're just plain unoriginal.

“We're going for a broad audience; we're going for something very, very unique, concentrating on high-quality broad audience appeal,” says John Saade, who co-heads ABC's alternative department with Vicki Dummer.

That's not to say formats that are working elsewhere around the world are any less desirable today. A track record or tape showing how an idea translates to screen remains useful, especially in nailing execution. But executives are seeing slightly fewer of those, especially out of the U.K. lately due in part to the economy and also because there has been a large amount of executive turnover at several major British TV networks. “Globally, with all the upheaval in the U.K., a lot of British producers have been set back a little bit,” Saade says.

When network execs do find something visionary, they have to beware as much as ever of the copycat, reality TV's worst form of murder-suicide. Revved up on competition or perhaps just too much of the derivative Kool-Aid, reality's relatively short history has an already long tradition of multiple, competing versions of the same show launching simultaneously (Read: the nanny shows, the boxing shows, the lie-detector chair/chamber shows, knowing-the-lyrics shows).

Rush to market

The first to market is often of inferior quality because it's rushed. But viewers start watching the first one, walk away because it's slapped together and ignore the second mover, assuming it's more of the same.

With so much reality programming on TV between broadcast and cable networks, many viewers have grown up on it and have an elevated bar as far as their expectations of quality. Still, Brill says she is optimistic this summer will yield some fresh newcomers: “Whenever you have a great idea, viewers will follow. I always have faith. There's a lot of creativity in this business.”