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Networks get reality check

The networks' fall shows, traditionally the stars of the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour, were reduced to second leads at ABC's and NBC's presentations in Pasadena, Calif., last week as the issue of reality shows took center stage.

Although Survivor, Big Brother and even Millionaire were designed on paper to be strictly summer outings, all three hogged the spotlight from the three first-time dramas and six new comedies the networks were supposedly hyping.

Take, for instance, ABC's kick-off Q & A with TCA members (led by ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairs Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun).

In light of Big Brother's failure to grab Survivor-sized audiences for CBS, many critics raised questions about ABC's decision to stick with the current reality rage and air four nights of Millionaire next season.

"We believe in the strength of Millionaire, and I think we're fortunate in having to only launch four new series [medical drama Gideon's Crossing and sitcoms The Geena Davis Show, The Trouble With Normal and Madigan Men]," said Bloomberg. "You know how hard it is when all the networks are introducing 20-plus shows in the fall, so we see it as a plus to launch four to a stable schedule."

Critics were also eager to hear about the three reality shows ABC has in development: The Mole (by Big Brother production company Endemol), The Runner (executive-produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) and a Real World-ish untitled project about the inner workings of a start-up Internet magazine.

"I'm not sure how much I want to give away," said Bloomberg, who nonetheless said The Mole was closest to completion, given the show already exists in Europe.

NBC's West Coast President Scott Sassa spent most of his opening monologue apologizing for the network's lack of reality programming.

"Reality is not just a fad; it's a trend that will be around for while," he said. "We were not as aggressive as we should have been in this area. But this is something that we're taking very seriously."

Trying to explain the network's initial reluctance, NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier said: "There's been a change in taste on the part of advertisers to now pay a premium to be in a show like Survivor."

While insisting NBC would find quality reality projects, Sassa and Ancier also assured critics that "we are never going to abandon story-form programming." They called shows like West Wing and ER "the DNA of NBC."

One critic questioned NBC about the quality of reality series Chains of Love (which features a woman, chained to a group of men, who gradually unhitches herself from them until there's one date-worthy guy left standing.) "It would add diversity and spice to the schedule. Not everything is going to be The West Wing," said Ancier.

Although NBC has not yet picked up Chains, which is currently airing in Holland courtesy of Endemol, Sassa said reality will most likely be seen on NBC next summer, promoted during next spring's NBA playoffs.

Even sessions geared toward the networks' fall programming veered instead toward reality.

The producers and cast of Will & Grace were asked how it feels to have to go head to head with Millionaire on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. Likewise, representatives of ABC's new The Trouble With Normal were asked how it feels to launch without Millionaire as a lead-in or lead-out.

And the thrust of the Today session (meant to shed light on its added hour come Oct. 2) was whether Julie Chen of CBS' The Early Show crossed the line in reporting on Big Brother, which most would describe as entertainment, not news. Today newsreader (and Chen's counterpart) Ann Curry said, "I can say I would not have chosen to do that role."

But Today Executive Producer Jeff Zucker noted, "The Early Show is facing a 'make-or-break' situation right now [in terms of ratings], so I understand where they're coming from. Still, I think it was inappropriate. We wouldn't want to be seen as a promotional tool for NBC Entertainment."

As for Today's frequent mentions of Survivor, Zucker responded, "Survivor is part of the fabric of this summer, so, to the chagrin of some [NBC] executives, we're talking about the show."

When NBC eventually gets its own reality series, "it would be a lie to say we wouldn't take part in [some similar kind of cross-promotion]," he said, his previous protestations and claims of "inappropriateness" notwithstanding.

Many critics greeted the networks' fall entries with yawns.

"There's nothing on the radar screen that even comes close to a West Wing or a Millionaire," said Mark McGuire, a TCA member with the Times Union, a syndicate service for The New York Times. "The networks were so paralyzed with coming up with the next grand slam reality show, the development process [for dramas and comedies] slacked off."

Philadelphia Daily News' Ellen Gray, covering the press tour for a seventh time, said, "None of us are terribly excited about anything."

But she conceded that critics' opinions are somewhat overrated, since TV viewers-not writers-chiefly determine a show's success.

"People are always saying this is the worst season I've ever seen, but that can't be true every year," Gray added. "I was one of those that picked Chicago Hope over ER."

And after Survivor, "many critics thought Big Brother would be a [similar] ratings juggernaut," said Boston Herald's Marisa Guthrie.

While Big Brother has won its time period in key demos-propelling CBS this month to its first win in adults 18-49 since 1994-the show has not blown away its rivals to the extent Survivor did.

There were kind words for a handful of the newcomers, but even those sentiments were tinged with skepticism.

"ABC has a good show in Gideon's Crossing," said Guthrie. "But it's in a terrible slot going up against Law & Order, which has the same audience."

She spoke highly of CBS series Bette, hands-down favorite during May's upfront presentations in New York.

A couple of high-profile NBC shows-the Dick Wolf-produced Deadline and Kramer's next gig, The Michael Richards Show-did not have finished pilots for critics to review.

In other ABC news from the tour:

  • Flush with excitement over the next season of Norm, ABC will place audio ads for the show on the backs of urinals in New York and Los Angeles. The posters, featuring such catchphrases as "Must-Pee TV," will sound off with a recorded message from Norm star Norm MacDonald. ABC will also drum up buzz for its shows via ATM machines, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and phone machine reminders.
  • Monday Night Football's newest addition, comedian Dennis Miller, hoped to silence some critics. "I've never played the game, but it's not like I'm on the medical channel. I watch football as much as anybody. I'm not just going to be the court jester out there."
  • Charlie Sheen says he will incorporate some of his real-life controversies (drugs, Heidi Fleiss to name a couple) into his character on Spin City. "To ignore the reality of the kind of lifestyle I led at one time, for a long time, would be a bit of a disservice to the show and to the potential comedic situations in the character." That said however, "I think there are [situations], as tastefully or comedically as you try to define them, that really have no place on network television."

On NBC's slate:

  • NBC's Tucker will switch places with 3rd Rock From the Sun, part of the network's plan to create a family- oriented comedy block on Mondays and an older-skewing sitcom slate on Tuesdays. Ancier said the launch date for NBC shows new and returning will be announced once the dates for the 2000 presidential debates are made public.
  • Drew Carey, Bruce Helford (executive producer of ABC's Drew Carey Show and Norm) and Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon have teamed to develop a sitcom for NBC. In the pipeline for 2001, the project will take a page from this year's live episode of Drew Carey by incorporating some live elements but will involve a different cast of characters. Carey, on board as an executive producer, will most likely appear in several episodes as the character he plays on his ABC show. Helford and Simon are also executive producers.
  • Sassa cracked a few jokes about his supposed imminent departure. "I want to thank the maybe 20 people who didn't write that I was fired," he said. "But I understand how this stuff happens. You get a lot of stories written about you that are very nice that you probably don't deserve, and you probably get stories that aren't so nice that you don't deserve either."
  • Florence Henderson, co-host of the recently canceled Later Today, has been confirmed as a regular contributor to the soon-to-expand Today Show. No word yet on the fates of her Later partners, Jodi Applegate and Asha Blake.