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Harsh Reality

In what has become a midseason rite of passage for network television, American Idol returned last week to the usual effect—record audiences for Fox and bitter resignation for its rivals. But lost in all the hoopla last week was an alarming truth: Apart from Idol, there is a paucity of fresh unscripted fare on television.

And the current standard bearers for the genre—Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Bachelor and The Apprentice—are showing signs of age.

“It’s frustrating,” admitted ABC reality chief Andrea Wong. Speaking on a panel last week at the gathering of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE), Wong lamented, “We’re not hearing great ideas. It’s incumbent upon us and the producers to come up with more great ideas. What’s the next form of the genre? I ask myself that a lot. There’s room for another relationship show, just not one like The Bachelor.”

Wong, who’s had an impressive run at ABC, knows whereof she speaks. Does anyone know where that next mega-watercooler reality hit is coming from? Looking out on the development horizon, things look pretty bleak. Too often you hear from Wong or her counterparts at other networks that everyone is simply playing it too safe. Pick your reality genre—relationship, game show, makeover, workplace competition or unscripted dramas featuring some sexy demo. Anything that gets any traction at all inevitably inspires a run on pale imitations of the original.

Idol aside, Fox is a serial offender in the copycat department. Last week, the network announced that it is developing a new reality series called When Women Rule the World from the same producers who concocted Temptation Island and Joe Millionaire. Sounding like a hybrid of Survivor, Big Brother and The Bachelorette, When Woman Rule, explained Fox reality czar Mike Darnell, puts “12 attractive women” in charge of “12 macho, chauvinistic guys.”

The men, who act as “manservants” to the women, will be voted off the show one by one, depending on how they perform their duties.

“This is a social experiment and not a sexual experiment,” Darnell told Daily Variety. “We decided, why not create this Petri dish of a society and see what happens?”

Whatever. Does anyone really believe this will be the killer app that reinvents the reality genre?

Even unscripted shows pitched at NATPE want for originality and flair. When the highest-profile new stuff ranges from a magazine show based on a popular celebrity-gotcha Website to a talk show featuring a host whose claim to fame is restraining guests on The Jerry Springer Show, you know these are times where the lowest common denominator passes as innovation.

I don’t mean to suggest that reality TV is in its last throes. A slew of broadcast series—ABC’s Wife Swap and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; and America’s Top Model on The CW— still deliver the ratings to keep them on the primetime grid. NBC’s Deal or No Deal and ABC’s Dancing with the Stars are both bona fide hits and are early in their respective lifecycles.

And cable has provided a breeding ground for shows that tweak the old formulas to great effect, including Bravo’s Project Runaway and Top Chef, VH1’s Flavor of Love and MTV’s The Hills, which opened its second season strong last week.

But the successes are modest ones compared to the juggernaut that is American Idol. And maybe that’s just the reality for the present state of unscripted television: There’s Idol and then there’s everything else.