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Reeling in reality

Reality TV is all the rage with broadcast and cable networks. Syndication may be next, and today's national debut of Columbia TriStar's daytime strip, Shipmates,
could indicate whether the genre will sink or swim in local markets.
Recent development deals include Rita, a spin on HBO's Taxicab Confessions
at Fox Studios; a self-explanatory tell-all called The TV Hairdresser
at Columbia TriStar; and a beefed-up Blind Date
called Matchmaker Mansion
from Warner Bros.

Yet, before distributors can dive into something like Shipmates, they have to make sure they won't drown in the financing. Syndicators produce strips for $250,000 to $350,000 for a week's worth of shows. For network television, those reality shows cost $500,000 to $1 million for a single episode.

"The interest has always been there," says David Goldberg, U.S. chief at Endemol Entertainment, which makes CBS's Big Brother. "The biggest obstacle syndicators have had to overcome is the economics."

He says syndicators "were chomping at the bit to do Big Diet," about contestants' trying to lose weight for cash, but Twentieth Television and others "looked at what it would cost to do it on a strip basis, and it was just too prohibitive." Twentieth is shelving Big Diet,
though it's in the works at ABC, and Tribune Entertainment is benching Endemol's All You Need Is Love.

Production elements of NBC's stunt-heavy Fear Factor
are "pretty daunting," admits Tribune's syndication chief, Dick Askin, noting that "if you're too cheap in your production values, no one is going to watch it."

Still, the ratings-challenged syndication arena could use a Survivor.

"We need a new format, for crying out loud!" says Stacy Lynn Koerner, senior vice president at advertiser-rep firm Initiative Media, pointing out that advertiser interest in strips is dismal.

So producers are finding partners to share the cost. Columbia TriStar hooked up with Carnival Cruise Line to offset promotion and production costs on Shipmates.
Warner Bros.'ElimiDate
is sharing key production people with The WB's ElimiDate Deluxe.

will thrill; it will look like a network show," promises Steve Mosko, Columbia TriStar's chief.

Stations may be willing to pay sizable license fees for what they see as alternatives to older-skewing network soap operas.

CBS "had such amazing success bringing in younger demographics in prime time with Survivor
and Big Brother," says Rozanne Englehart, programming head at KCBS-TV Los Angeles, which will air Shipmates
at 3 p.m. "Why can't we do that in daytime?"

Among other projects on tap:

  • Paramount Domestic Television and Jonathan Goodson Productions will distribute reality series based on formats already turned into series in Europe by Scandinavia's Strix Television (responsible for the precursor to CBS'sSurvivor). Strix is said to be producingThe Bar, in which contestants try to operate a neighborhood tavern for prizes, at very low cost.
  • Other Strix formats includeThe Harem, in which women boss a group of men, andThe Farm, with modern folks having to milk cows and use outhouses. InTrading Places, two families temporarily switch lives.
    is targeted for network, andThe Bar
    is likely to head either to cable or to a major station group for a limited run in syndication next summer. Paramount is also exploring daily versions on cable with a weekend network run.
    Paramount programming head Greg Meidel believes that syndicators need to be "more flexible" in distribution and says, "I think it's unfair to think that, just because you see it in syndication, it's not going to be as good as what you're seeing on the network."
  • Buena Vista and Paramount are working on reality versions of ER,
    titledReal Medical
  • Small Pie Town Productions, behind TLC'sA Baby Story
    and Home&Garden TV'sDesigning for the Sexes, is said to be courting syndicators with reality projects.