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Basic cable networks ready to leap into reality TV

AMC, USA and TNT are waking up to unscripted storytelling's popularity, with several shows in development.

October 16, 2011|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • Ron Howard, left, and Brian Grazer are working on The Great Escape, an adventure series for TNT.
Ron Howard, left, and Brian Grazer are working on The Great Escape, an adventure… (Dario Cantatore / Getty…)

In television, the reality is reality works.

Even so, the ever profitable genre is often regarded as the uncouth and self-involved relative who should never be invited to mingle with respectable company. But that's exactly what a handful of prestige basic cable networks are finally poised to do.

After years of mostly defying the siren call of reality, networks like USA, TNT and AMC plan to launch a slate of reality programming in the coming months. Don Draper and Brenda Leigh Johnson, meet your new neighbors: Comic book geeks, treasure hunters and the U.S. Coast Guard, among others.

"Unscripted storytelling is and will be a vital part of the television landscape forever — you need look no further than the top 20 programs at any given time for proof of that," said Michael Wright, executive vice president and head of programming at TNT (referring to ratings hits such as "Dancing With the Stars" and "Survivor"). "At this point, to not have unscripted programming on your schedule is almost a sin of omission."

The tardiness in embracing reality, executives explained, can be traced to their single-minded focus in building a distinct brand with blocks of original scripted programming. Taking on the additional task of developing reality programming during this period would have been too great a distraction, they say.

But ultimately it was the lure of boffo ratings and cheap production costs that proved too tempting for the networks, which now have committed to jumping into the already crowded reality pool. The trick for the latecomers will be selecting shows that conform to — and most important, don't diminish — their hard-earned network identities.

At no place is this challenge more stark than at AMC, which in a short number of years has shed its dusty image as only a "classic" movies rerun house to an Emmy-winning powerhouse behind the likes of "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men."

"We've been talking about unscripted for a couple of years and have probably been developing it in earnest for well over a year," said Joel Stillerman, AMC's president of original programming. "We don't want to be — and couldn't pull off — being in the Kardashian business or being in 'The Real Housewives' business."

AMC has four reality series in the pipeline that executives believe hew closely to the network's ethos of genre-based storytelling. One show, "JJK Security," will introduce viewers to the off-kilter world of a small, family-owned Georgia security firm. The show's tone and feel will take its inspiration from the quirky, larger-than-life characters that populate films by the Coen brothers, Christopher Guest and Robert Altman.

The network's other reality shows include the "Mad Men"-friendly "The Pitch," which follows top creative ad agencies as they prepare campaigns and pitches; "Secret Stash," which documents the fanboy culture as seen through the comic book shop owned by filmmaker Kevin Smith; and, "Talking Dead," a talk show companion for "The Walking Dead," which premieres Sunday.

AMC wants to "break the visual mold" of reality, Stillerman said. "We are working very closely with producers to steer away from the look of typical reality shows," he said. "We want to shoot more in the style of scripted."

Making up for lost time, TNT — known for its cop dramas like "The Closer" and "Rizzoli and Isles" — is casting an even wider net with its reality programming. The network has tapped some of the biggest names in reality and Hollywood to guide its eight to 10 projects in development including reality kingpins Mark Burnett and Thom Beers, and moviemakers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

"We want to broaden our appeal even more, and I don't think it's going to feel like an odd fit to our viewers if we do it thoughtfully," Wright said. "I almost wish, frankly, that we had been in it a year earlier."

Among the TNT shows in the works are a competition series from Burnett called "Fortune Hunters," which pits teams against each other in search of hidden treasures; an adventure series called "The Great Escape" from Howard, Grazer and "The Amazing Race's" Bertram van Munster, in which contestants try to break out of different confinements; and "Search and Rescue" from "The Deadliest Catch's" Thom Beers, which follows a U.S. Coast Guard crew stationed in Kodiak, Alaska.

Executives are hoping for a better reception than it received for one of its early forays into reality, "Wedding Day." The show, which aired briefly in summer 2009, gave deserving couples their dream wedding. It stumbled over poor ratings for a few months and disappeared.

"I made the mistake of choosing a show that was on 47 other networks," Wright said. "It was beautifully produced, but it was everywhere. More important than that, it wasn't a great fit."

In picking up reality again, TNT's ambition is, quite simply, to mirror major networks such as CBS and ABC.

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