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Reality rules again at TCA

Reality again dominated the discussions at the network portion of the Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena, but it meant something different to CBS, The WB and UPN.

CBS predicted its summer reality series (Survivor and Big Brother) will drive the adult 18-49 demo to CBS' fall slate of programming, although the critics wondered whether that would come at the expense of its older viewers.

For UPN, the reality was Paramount's now sole ownership of the network, which prompted it to drop the U from its name (from original partner Chris-Craft/United) and rechristen itself The Paramount Network.

Meanwhile, The WB was looking to counter the reality trend with programming that emphasizes comedies-its strategy to win back a chunk of its core audience, women 18-34, that defected from its dramas this season for the likes of other offerings, among them Survivor and Big Brother.

First to bat with critics was CBS Television President and CEO Leslie Moonves. "Thanks to Survivor and Big Brother," he told them, "CBS' median prime time age [it is the oldest-skewing of the networks] has gone down three years." He cited The Early Show, up 29% among women 18-49, and The Late Show, up 17% among adults 18-49.

>But Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem had to counter several critics' forecasts that CBS would eventually alienate its core older audience with younger-skewing fare.

"This 600-pound gorilla called Survivor coming off the bench in January [thanks to CBS' presenting the sequel, Survivor II: The Australian Outback, immediately following Super Bowl XXXV] could help us immensely," Moonves said. "Do I envision a schedule with four hours of reality on it? No, I don't. I think our bread and butter is still the Judging Amys and Jags and 60 Minutes of the world."

Moonves said that he was first in line for the reality formats picked up by rival networks. But he turned the offers down, saying, among other things, that "the Ben Affleck [and Matt Damon's The Runner] project still had a lot of question marks."

When queried about the possibility of CBS'fall shows turning off its Survivor-snagged young adults, Moonves, quoting TV writer Bill Carter, responded, "There's no reason why Everybody Loves Raymond has a median age of 49 and Frasier has a median age of 41. [NBC's] Frasier has older actors, it's older-themed. That's why we use Survivor. It's that CBS' [potential] audience has not been exposed to our kinds of shows."

And to parry questions about the debatable fun factor of watching six nights a week of Big Brother, Moonves joked, "You know, Bill Clinton has already called me about a couple people on Big Brother." Then Moonves turned serious. "Sure, a second coming of Big Brother this spring is possible," he said. He noted that Big Brother has boosted CBS' performances in those time periods by 89% over the network's regular-season numbers.

Moonves took issue with the suggestion that Julie Chen (of CBS' The Early Show) blurred the lines between entertainment and legitimate news by her participation on Big Brother telecasts. "How about when Matt Lauer [of NBC's The Today Show] got his hair cut on the set of Friends, was that news? Morning shows shouldn't be held to the same hard line as the Brokaws or Jennings," he said.

In other CBS news:

  • Survivor Executive Producer Mark Burnett told TV critics the sequel is on track. In just two weeks, 6,200 Survivor II hopefuls have sent in their applications.
  • CBS is prepping a proper send-off for the first Survivor. Moonves said the show's two-hour finale Aug. 23 will be followed by a live hour broadcast of a town-hall meeting starring all 16 islanders.
  • CBS parent Viacom's VH1 and MTV will each host a Bette Midler week just prior to the debut of her CBS comedy. TV Land will run a marathon of classic series The Fugitive to hype the fall premiere of CBS' remake.
  • Roseanne alum Sarah Gilbert has been added to the cast of a new CBS comedy starring former Cybill star Christine Baranski.

'I would just use 'P, 'but.'

Dean Valentine, UPN's president and CEO, was asked to defend the name change. "Paramount has always been at the center of UPN," said one critic, "so why adopt a new name?"

"It made sense for our name to reflect" our sole parentage, said Valentine. "UPN had always felt like [the name] was awkward.and our affiliates thought there was tremendous equity in the Paramount name."

The re-branded Paramount Network ("I would say just use 'P' but that would be awkward," added Valentine) will take effect Jan. 1.

But Valentine had more to talk about than a new name. Joined by UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan and Chief Operating Officer Adam Ware, he trumpeted the network's ratings windfall with WWF Smackdown!, which has helped boost UPN 111% over last year in its target demo, men 18-34.

"Last year, there was a great level of doubt in the business about whether or not we could turn around. But a year later, we're out of the hospital. For the first time, all our rating trend levels are up," said Ware.

While the WWF controls the lion's share of Smackdown's ad dollars, UPN still posted 47% higher revenues this season. And "one-third of all our advertisers are new," added Ware. They include AT & T, Chrysler, Intel and Sprint.

Looking ahead, UPN has locked up Smackdown for four more seasons. And in two weeks, UPN will dip into its owner's hefty resources by running fall prime time campaign spots on Viacom-owned, proven teen-grabber MTV.

As for tapping into the resources of co-owned CBS àla Pax TV and NBC, Valentine said, "Although we'd love to take Survivor re-runs, it won't be a general strategy to re-purpose CBS shows. It tends to decrease [the value of CBS' content] and is probably not a good idea for our affiliates."

On the subject of decreasing CBS' value, Valentine said he doubted that UPN's winter debut of its extreme football league, the XFL (a joint venture with NBC), would have a negative impact on CBS' football coverage, saying, "I think there really can be both. We begin when they're over."

In other UPN news:

  • The network adds a new affiliate in San Antonio on Aug. 3. Belo-owned KBEJ-TV will boost UPN's national distribution to 87%.
  • UPN is staggering the fall launches of its new series. Debuting first will be the newly acquired ABC comedy, The Hughleys on Sept. 4. Ensemble comedy Girlfriends will debut Sept. 11, followed by Monday-night movies Oct. 3. The last season of Voyager will take off Oct. 4, and freshman action series Freedom and Level 9 will premiere Oct. 27. Mid-season extreme football league, the XFL, will kick off Feb. 4.

WB counters with sitcoms

The WB CEO Jamie Kellner and Entertainment President Susanne Daniels defended their network's decision to push comedies for fall rather than pumping a slew of reality shows into its lineup.

Considering The WB's 20% ratings drop in total households last season, the duo had some explaining to do. Both largely blamed the loss of key distribution outlet superstation WGN-TV for The WB's pains.

But Kellner acknowledged that "[shows like Millionaire] have cut into us as they've cut into everybody else. But they're not getting anywhere near the [young adult] shares they got before. Generally, reality formats haven't appealed to younger people."

That said, Kellner broke the news that the expected date for the network to break even has been pushed back one year to the 2001-02 season, but added that "we did exceed our expectations in terms of advertising in the upfront market."

In explaining why the network is concentrating on comedies, not reality, Kellner said, "The reason we're developing comedy is as a way to differentiate ourselves."

Daniels talked about comedy's ability to increase The WB's attractiveness to men. "You know, typically men watch more comedy than they watch drama [a current WB content fixture]. So ultimately, this is going to have the effect of bringing more men to the network."

But The WB has not eschewed the reality format entirely. Mid-season pickup Popstars follows the lives of singing hopefuls and is based on a current ratings hit in Australia. And currently in development is a Henry Winkler-produced reality project, which chronicles the lives of fledgling reporters.

In other WB news:

  • Kellner (who will report directly to AOL President and Chief Operating Officer Bob Pittman when the merger of AOL and Time Warner is completed) is on the lookout for joint AOL-WB interactive programming. "I definitely see us doing things with AOL to communicate with viewers before and after programming," he said.
  • The Kids'WB!'s next incarnation of hit Pokémon will be titled Pokémon: The Joto Journeys. The new show will lead off a Saturday lineup of new children's animated series: Jackie Chan Adventures, based on Chan's signature karate high jinks; X-Men Evolution, a new spin on the comic-book series; and Static Shock, about an African-American superhero.
  • The WB has signed MTV's Bill Bellamy and Montreal Comedy Festival comics Mike Young and Danny Bhoy to develop new comedy vehicles.
  • Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye has been added to the cast of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.