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ABC prepares for a dose of 'reality'

Network turns to unscripted shows to fill holes -- and deflects criticism on their content.

January 16, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

After canceling all four of its new fall drama series before Christmas, ABC will pursue what executives acknowledge could be a short-term fix for potholes in its lineup with a barrage of staged reality shows through the spring and summer -- most with a thematic emphasis on appearance, including one titled "Are You Hot: The Search for America's Sexiest People."

Addressing reporters and critics in Hollywood on Wednesday, ABC Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun insisted the network has begun a "recovery" after dismal ratings last season but admitted that ABC still "can't get arrested" on Thursday nights. In that context, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne called unscripted programs "a nice way to heat up a cold time period."

Based on the questioning, however, some critics clearly took issue with the content of the programs, which in addition to "Are You Hot" -- from the producer of ABC's "The Bachelor," whose third edition will premiere after the network televises the Academy Awards in March -- include more installments of "Extreme Makeover," which offers people help to improve their looks, including plastic surgery.

Another project, "All American Girl," is a sort of pageant from the producers of "American Idol," with young women competing on the basis of beauty, intellect and skills. In addition, the network will devote 15 consecutive nights starting in February to "I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here," which features eight "celebrities" (they include former Olympian Bruce Jenner and host Robin Leach) battling the elements in a remote portion of Australia.

CBS, the home of "Survivor," sought to block ABC from airing that show, claiming it infringed on their program's copyright, only to have that bid rejected by a judge Monday.

Still, given that action and the perceived similarity of "All American Girl" to various beauty pageants, there was considerable laughter when Braun said, "We try to do shows that are original and not shamelessly derivative of other shows."

Both ABC and Fox are relying on unscripted programs to shore up schedules that witnessed considerable failure in the fall.

"Reality shows can be a real weapon, particularly on a night when you need to get a foothold," Lyne said.

Asked about where officials draw the line, Braun -- without specifying other networks -- said ABC sought to avoid projects that were "mean-spirited." Lyne also said that all the discussion surrounding the shows was "the fault of the people covering what's on our network." She then sought to clarify that point by saying that media interest in the shows, fueled by their novelty concepts, has tended to overshadow scripted series.

ABC is preparing to introduce a second wave of new dramas, with a trio -- including a revival of "Dragnet" -- to premiere in the week following the Super Bowl, which ABC will broadcast Jan. 26.

Although ABC remains third in overall prime-time viewing, the network is a close second for the season among adults 18 to 49 -- the age bracket generally used in negotiations with advertisers -- and should at least temporarily pass CBS thanks to the Super Bowl, traditionally the year's most-watched event.

In addition to using the Super Bowl as a launching pad, Braun said ABC will also try half a dozen staged reality shows when the network airs the NBA basketball playoffs this summer. NBC, the former home of that showcase, capitalized on its strong male appeal to introduce the unscripted shows "Fear Factor" and "Dog Eat Dog."

Bucking logic that mitigates against premiering series during sweeps periods, "Are You Hot" will air at 9 p.m. beginning Feb. 13, the same night CBS unveils the next "Survivor." Similarly, "I'm a Celebrity" -- which, like "Survivor," originated in the U.K. -- will make its debut Feb. 19, following the finale of "The Bachelorette."

The network also announced plans for a three-hour 50th anniversary special, which will be taped in March to run during the May rating sweeps. NBC celebrated its 75th anniversary (dating back to its roots in radio) with its own prime-time event last year.

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