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Reality Shows Put NBC on Defensive

Executives say popular 'Fear Factor' and 'Spy TV' haven't sullied network's quality reputation.


A year ago, NBC's West Coast President Scott Sassa and Entertainment President Garth Ancier stood side by side, fielding questions from the press regarding their tardiness in developing alternative program formats--perceived foot-dragging that drew a rebuke from NBC's corporate bosses, who bristled as ABC and CBS drank in the rewards of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor," respectively.

This Thursday, Sassa--with Ancier's replacement, former "Today" producer Jeff Zucker--will be back in Pasadena addressing the same gathering of TV critics and reporters. Only this time, it's anticipated the discussion will focus in part on the depths to which NBC has plunged in mining that programming terrain--jeopardizing, some have argued, its "Must-See TV" image.

Both Sassa, 42, and Zucker, 36, insisted during an interview last week at their offices in Burbank that they are comfortable with NBC's freshly minted foray into unscripted television with the summer series "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV." The former features contestants vying for $50,000 by engaging in various stunts--which have included being buried neck-deep in rats and worms--while the latter is a hidden-camera show that subjects its dupes to pranks such as embroiling them in a high-speed chase.

Both programs have garnered impressive ratings, performing so well within the young-adult age brackets used to negotiate advertising rates that NBC has confirmed ordering 13 additional episodes of each for broadcast during the coming season.

At the same time, to dabble in understatement, the critics have not been kind. The Washington Post's Tom Shales called "Fear Factor" "a sickening exercise in cruelty and venality." Robert Bianco of USA Today said the two shows exhibit "the vilest form of human desperation and an absolute disregard for human dignity."

Perhaps of more concern to NBC are suggestions the network's imprimatur of quality--embodied by such Emmy-winning series as "ER" and "Frasier"--has been sullied by what is viewed as pandering to the public's basest appetites.

"There is a perception out there that we were going to put on these shows and bring down our brand," Sassa acknowledged, adding that NBC remains network television's leader in awards and accolades. In expanding its programming menu, he said, "Our biggest goal was not to sacrifice that attribute."

NBC officials contend they have done nothing to undermine the network's prestige; in fact, analysis of the ratings finds "Fear Factor," "Spy TV" and the quiz show "Weakest Link," featuring nasty British host Anne Robinson, all performing disproportionately well among the affluent, college-educated viewers NBC boasts about attracting with "The West Wing."

"We're surprised," Zucker conceded about the audience profile, indicating the programs may be reaching a more refined demographic because they play on NBC.

Cable networks have long garnered attention with boundary-pushing programs, from MTV's "Jackass" to HBO's "Real Sex." The same holds true with syndicated programs shown on broadcast stations, such as "Jerry Springer."

Yet the major networks were perceived to be different--a sense recently summed up in the Myers Report column by Ed Martin, who asked in regard to "Fear Factor," "Shouldn't broadcast television be better than this?"

Having worked in broadcast news before migrating West seven months ago, Zucker recognized that NBC's summer tryouts would not be embraced by the press.

"Before these programs went on . . . I told everyone [at NBC] we were going to get savaged by the critics," he said.

Still, Zucker observed that viewers under age 35--an audience reared on MTV and ESPN's extreme-sports X Games--are more receptive to such programs. As a result, he said, the critics lambasting these shows are not representative of the target audience, either demographically or in their programming tastes.

"They're telling us something," Zucker said of that youthful audience, adding that it smacks of elitism to imply that the major networks should somehow be above providing entertainment that viewers clearly want to see.

"We have to be broadcasters in the broadest sense of that word," he noted.

The boost NBC has enjoyed among younger viewers is evident in breakdowns of ratings this summer compared with 2000. NBC is the only broadcast network to lower its median viewing age, reflecting a higher percentage of viewers under 40 in its audience.

Zucker's appointment, and Ancier's ouster, sent a message about how seriously NBC brass approached the need to experiment with various kinds of programming. As Sassa put it, "We can't just keep hitting down the middle."

In March, NBC Chairman Bob Wright stated the network must preserve its "scripted sensibilities" while bringing the immediacy of "Today" to prime time. "This is his time," he said of Zucker, who in his last job made on-the-fly decisions about what to include in each morning's broadcast.

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