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Harsh reality for scripted TV

Networks' message to unscripted shows: Take your time. But to others: Perform or perish.

August 02, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Under normal circumstances, a TV show that delivers so-so ratings in its first season and gets publicly dissed by the man who put it on the air is probably not coming back. But in the fast-paced world of "reality" TV, the typical rules often don't apply.

That's why CBS' "Big Brother," beating rival network shows in head-to-head competition this summer, got four years to find its creative footing and grow an audience. In fact, in a rare outbreak of patience, TV executives have become downright nurturing of unscripted shows with even a hint of promise: Fox and NBC are doing well with two second-year reality shows, "Simple Life" and "Last Comic Standing." A fifth-season reality show, "Amazing Race," has turned into a strong hit for CBS, especially among advertiser-friendly young viewers. And next season, the Fox smash "American Idol" will return for its fourth cycle and NBC's "The Apprentice" will be back for Round 2.

By comparison, scripted shows often seem like rejected "Idol" singing contestants: lucky to croak out a few notes before getting the boot.

For instance, a host of dramas that debuted with high expectations over the past season got yanked after just a few episodes, including ABC's "Line of Fire" (11 airings) and "Karen Sisco" (seven), CBS' "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." (five), NBC's "Miss Match" (11) and Fox's "Skin" (three).

Network executives have always had itchy trigger fingers when it comes to killing underperforming shows. But a new dynamic has emerged in which many reality shows get seemingly unlimited chances, even as the options for their scripted brethren continue to wither. The current rules of engagement promise to be especially relevant in the coming fall season, when roughly one in five network shows will be new or returning reality series.

"It's astonishing to me that 'Big Brother' is in its fifth season," says Marshall Herskovitz, whose acclaimed drama "Once and Again" was canceled by ABC in 2002 despite an intense campaign by fans to save it.

CBS boss Leslie Moonves is somewhat surprised too, though for different reasons. Moonves criticized the first season of "Big Brother" as too slow-paced and "European" for American audiences but decided to take a flier and bring back the show the following summer anyway. "We realized it wasn't a good show," the network chief recalled of the first season. "But we felt it had potential." CBS hired new producers and strove to make "Big Brother" more accessible to viewers. The investment paid off: "That show makes a lot of money for us," Moonves says.

Money goes a long way toward explaining why reality series are being allowed incubation periods that their scripted cousins could never hope to receive.

While costs for reality shows have climbed sharply, they are still generally much less expensive to produce than scripted series, which routinely run more than $2 million per episode. Jerry Bruckheimer, an executive producer for "Amazing Race" as well as TV's No. 1 drama, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," says "Race" costs less than half as much as "CSI."

"I still think it's a lot cheaper" to do reality series, Bruckheimer says.

The first season of "Big Brother" cost less than $250,000 per episode, according to Moonves. "So you get a lot more bang for your buck" with reality shows, he says.

Network executives also like that many reality series are based on concepts that can be summed up in the title (e.g., "Trading Spouses") and have game-like elements, such as weekly eliminations and winners crowned during the finale. Scripted shows, by contrast, often revolve around complicated plotlines and feature characters who evolve over time.

"Most scripted shows aren't as 'noisy' as unscripted shows," says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman. "They attract an audience quicker. It's the immediate gratification versus the long-term gratification."

"You feel there's a diminishment of excitement about one-hour dramas on TV," Herskovitz admits. "Reality shows are sexier."

Then there's the fact that network executives typically buy reality shows for relatively short runs -- sometimes as few as six episodes -- rather than the 22 or 24 episodes per season for a scripted show. Executives also typically have seen many or perhaps all of the episodes in a reality series before the premiere, removing another potential worry.

Reality shows "are usually completely in the can before they go on the air," says veteran producer Steven Bochco. "You bought and paid for it, so just run the ... thing."

Still, a handful of promising but low-rated scripted shows are bucking the trend and getting second chances from networks. Two current examples are Fox's "Arrested Development" and "Tru Calling," which are coming back for the 2004-05 season despite disappointing numbers in their first years.

"We actually stuck with a couple of [scripted] shows longer than we have in the past," Beckman says.

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