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Fox Reality Channel: A Solitary Quest, Revealed

Fox Reality Channel thinks it knows exactly what viewers want, and it is finally in a position to show them.

With deals cut recently with Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the Fox Cable Networks unit will have the cash to produce more original programming and annoy critics with the sort of anything-goes-philosophy its parent company is known for. The network expects to reach 35 million viewers and finally become large enough to warrant getting listed on Nielsen Media Research’s national People Meter sample.

Those few able to view Fox’s initial series, Solitary, last summer saw an intense, noisy, somewhat sadistic, yet oddly addictive show in which nine contestants vied to win $50,000 by being locked up alone in a sparse chamber. They communicated solely with a creepy computer named VAL, a play off of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL, who taunted them as they competed through difficult stunts amid deprivation of food, sleep and eventually their sanity until they quit.

But Fox replied that no one was forced to remain in solitude, and it is returning this year with Solitary 2.0 with plans to even further test people’s limitations and what they would do for cash. Fox should have no shortage of contestants for the sequel.

Of its total hours of reality programming each week, all but a handful are from acquisitions, often shows right off its sister Fox Broadcasting network such as American Idol and Joe Millionaire, as well as foreign imports like Australia’s Treasure Island.

Launched in May 2005, Fox Reality’s original-programming plans have been hamstrung by both the network’s lack of deals with top cable operators and its non-appearance on Nielsen. Its regular original menu has consisted mainly of Reality Redux, a recap of developments on reality shows the night before, and American Idol Extra, an inside look at the mega-hit.

The huge off-Fox library gave the company the ability to launch and program the network relatively cheaply until it could gain significant carriage.

"This is a no-brainer for Fox," Fox Networks CEO Tony Vinciquerra said in July 2004. "We have within our libraries thousands of hours of stockpiled shows. We have tremendous resources within the company, within all of the studios and networks. We have great talent in the field. If we didn't do this, it would be a sin, and we should go to jail for not doing it."

READY, SET,
GROW

But with its introduction to Nielsen’s meters this year, Fox is ready to expand its original productions, according to network chief operating officer and general manager David Lyle, who, as head of FremantleMedia North America, helped to launch American Idol in the United States.

“We’ve done research with our audience about their attitudes and the kind of way they consume reality television,” Lyle said. “They expect to see real people. They are absolutely fierce on that, under circumstances that are somewhat contrived depending on the circumstances. The demand is for real reactions. Real people have real reactions even if the circumstances are contrived.”

Lyle puts such shows into two categories; competitive shows such as Solitary or American Idol, where producers develop contrived situations; and what he calls “Ob-docs,” more documentary-like shows like A&E Network’s fugitive-finder quasi-documentary, Dog the Bounty Hunter.

In the survey, which Fox conducted last year, it learned that most reality shows take two or three years to reach their peak. TLC’s home-design series, Trading Spaces, hit its stride in its third season with an average of 3.1 million viewers. VH1’s Flavor of Love with rapper Flavor Flav looking for a mate grew by 57% in its second -- and final – season, to just below 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

“The overwhelming thing we learned was that shows need time to grow,” said Bob Boden, Fox Reality’s vice president of programming.

That’s why the network is optimistic about Solitary 2.0 andis readying its second in-house produced series, Academy, which will follow police recruits in training in Los Angeles, for a May debut.

Another original series, Rob and Amber --in which the ubiquitous reality-show pair, already seen in Survivor and The Amazing Race,headfor Las Vegas so Rob Mariano can quit his unsaid 9-5 job and try and become a professional poker player -- began in January.

There has also been a pair of U.K. co-productions: My Bare Lady, a series of three one-hour series in which American porn stars vied for a top slot in a legitimate West End British play; and Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes, an eight-episode series that followed a pair of British producers who began their own vineyard.

But unlike VH1 -- which presents its shows, such as I Love New York and Surreal Life, with a wink and a camp factor that says, “We’re all in on the joke” -- Fox Reality takes its material more seriously. “I don’t like thinking about our shows as guilty pleasures -- just pleasures,” Boden added.

VH1’s culture treats the competitive aspect of its celebrity series as the backdrop for the shenanigans that go on while on a show like Solitary, the competition is front and center.

“The actual competition is the least part of the show,” VH1 GM Tom Calderone said. He was taking specifically about Flavor of Love,but hecould have been referring to almost all of his celebreality series.

And just as cousin Fox Broadcasting became known for stretching the bounds of taste with such notorious series as Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and TemptationIsland, the cable network’s Solitary made a similar statement even as critics lambasted the show.

“It's like the Saw movies meet the worst in 1970s futuristic Japanese cinema. With just a touch of Abu Ghraib,” wrote Christopher Lawrence in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross gave the series a “C,” terming it “more than anyone with a remote control will be expected to bear.”

BADGE OF HONOR

Critical reaction has often been irrelevant -- even a badge of honor -- at Fox, which cares mainly if a show captivates the public. But Boden insisted that the network won’t be a one-trick pony.

“We’ve had a very diverse slate of reality so far,” he said. “We do push the envelope as much as we can within the constructs of our internal standards and practice rules. We don’t program TV-MA product before 10 p.m. We do push the limit as far as we can. We want to appeal to our target demo, 18-49. If kids and teens watch, we want them to enjoy our product. We don’t want to be so narrow as getting us defined ourselves as only this [type of network].”

Fox Reality beats to its own drum in other ways: While most pay TV network programmers are bearish on the viability of airing older reality series, Fox embraces the idea, but with a twist: adding DVD-like bonus material interstitially dubbed Reality Revealed with commentary from past contestants.

The network is branching out in other platforms, as well. Last November, its programming began appearing on iTunes as Fox offered free sneak previews of My Bare Lady before charging $1.99 per episode after its Dec. 7 debut.

To Lyle, it’s all starting to come together for the two-year-old network.

“We’re finished with adolescence,” he said. “We’re in late adolescence. We went through birth, we went through [being] toddlers, we graduated primary school.”