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He doesn't need a script; it's about hitting a nerve

December 02, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

WESTERN civilization is apparently on the brink of collapse, and once again we can blame Fox television's Mike Darnell.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most talented reality programmers in town, the normally media-shy TV executive behind "American Idol," "Joe Millionaire" and, yes, even 1995's "Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?" has cast himself as the carnival barker for a new reality show that he jokes could push the culture over the edge. It's called "The Moment of Truth," and it premieres in late January.

A Colombian version of the show, which asks contestants increasingly personal questions while they are monitored by a polygraph, was abruptly yanked off the air this year when a woman revealed she'd hired someone to kill her husband. It's anybody's guess whether Fox's American version will be so lucky with its contestants.

"I've lived with the end of Western civilization thing my whole life," said Darnell, resting his cowboy boots upon an animal skin rug in his spacious Fox office. "I'm fine with it. For me, that's sort of how I live and breathe.

"But let me tell you, your biggest enemy on shows like these is apathy. So what you want is for people to think it's the greatest thing they've ever seen or the worst, most horrible, most terrible thing ever. That polarization is what we're after."

Darnell's imaginative antics are more significant than just one more passing program. In fact, should the strike by the Writers Guild of America drag on much longer, the title of his show could double as a description of this juncture for prime-time entertainment.

With new scripted network shows expected to start disappearing this month, a raft of new reality shows are poised to take over the precious few network openings. If scripted shows go dark and are replaced by reality, the event will make television history.

But will historians someday note of this strike that reality programming merely registered its high-water mark and then quietly retreated? Or will they view it as the beginning of a clear network shift away from scripted and toward reality? Or will the prime-time audience just keep abandoning the networks altogether?

"You reach a saturation point with these reality shows," said Brad Adgate, an analyst at the ad firm Horizon Media in New York. "I'm just not sure how many more of them the networks can put on. We'll have to see."

Certainly, the reality wars are hotter than ever. Darnell's show is drawing comparisons to NBC's upcoming "Amnesia," hosted by Dennis Miller. That program, executive produced by competing reality guru Mark Burnett, is billed as a comedy game show and challenges contestants to answer questions about their past.

"I heard the pitch for that, and it's nothing like our show," said Darnell, who signed a lucrative deal with Fox this past summer after being wooed by several other networks. "Their show is more like the old 'This Is Your Life' show. My show is a train wreck, a crazy manic train wreck."

Even before the writers strike, reality had been gradually encroaching upon the networks' prime-time schedules since CBS' "Survivor" premiered to huge numbers in 2000. Thanks to cheap production costs, surprisingly durable appeal and the rise of cable programming, reality has claimed more prime-time territory each successive season.

In a further troubling trend for scripted programs, this fall season -- despite rave reviews for many new shows -- failed to produce any clear breakout hits. Sometimes it can take a full season or more to gain a big audience, but the writers strike, which has now shut down production on more than 50 shows, threatens to gut this entire season for scripted shows.

Waiting to crash through the opening in the prime-time gates is a stampede of ratings-hungry reality shows. Viewers could see more than three dozen new and returning reality shows pop up on the network's prime-time schedule by summer -- roughly double the number of last year.

Getting ready to make a splash

Aquick peek at what's ahead suggests either a cornucopia of fun or the bottom of the barrel, according to your taste: CBS' "Million Dollar Password," a modern version of the game where a celebrity and a contestant try to guess a secret word; NBC's "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad," where families compete in stunt-driven challenges; and ABC's "Here Come the Newlyweds," where just-married couples vie for cash prizes while emphasizing the humorous side of the new relationship.

Some of this new crop -- like "The Moment of Truth" -- were slated to roll out midseason, strike or no strike. The work stoppage just means they have a better chance of making a splash.

After all, it will be "Truth," not a scripted show, that basks in the warmth of the post-"American Idol" glow when it opens Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. The "Idol" lead-in is one of the most coveted spots for a new show and is credited several seasons ago with turning a lackluster "House" into a ratings giant.

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