The New Reality Of Reality TV

May 26, 2004

It’s a fact: Reality TV will be with us for the foreseeable future. I make this bold announcement as NBC’s The Apprentice wraps up its initial run as one of the season’s highest-rated new programs. Who would have guessed it would do so well (other than The Donald himself)? Do you remember this time last year, when the network programming executives reaffirmed their commitment to scripted dramas and comedies? Yeah, right. That pledge lasted shorter than the time it takes to say Skin, Coupling, and The Brotherhood of Poland, NH.

While some of today’s crop of reality shows are simply reincarnations of their original format (Survivor VIII and Big Brother 5), others are new and unique in their concept (The Simple Life and The Contender). This is a challenge to both buyers and sellers of commercial airtime. How do we reliably estimate the size of the viewing audiences for these new programs?

Reality TV: Next On Tap...

From producer Mark Burnett (Survivor and The Apprentice). Set at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the program will provide an extraordinary 24/7, behind-the-scenes look at the real-life dramas that unfold at the establishment after its new owners take over the old-time Vegas landmark and attempt to bring back the glory of its ÒRat PackÓ heyday. Scheduled for summer 2004. Sounds like The Restaurant (NBC, July 2003) to me.

The Contender

Does this guy ever sleep? Mark Burnett teams up with DreamWorks TV and Sylvester Stallone to search for a real-life Rocky. The series will focus around a nationwide search for a Ònew boxing superstarÓ who could, according to Daily Variety, Òbreathe life back into the troubled sport.Ó Use The Apprentice actual from February 2004 for this Òearly 2005Ó debut.

The Benefactor

What would you do for a million dollars? Billionaire businessman and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is about to find out, because he is The Benefactor, and heÕs set to give away a million bucks to a complete stranger. ÒIt will be fascinating to see just what America must do to win MarkÕs million,Ó states the showÕs creator, David Young. ABC sales execs will want to cite Apprentice-sized ratings estimates, but itÕs a different viewing world in July (as compared to February). IÕd be more inclined to use 2003Õs Last Comic Standing as my guide.

The Will
The Will is the latest reality series from Mike Fleiss, creator of The Bachelor. Currently casting, this program seeks someone with a sizable fortune and a substantial sense of humor to be The Benefactor, in which his or her family will compete to be named the heir to a fortune. If it makes it to the summer schedule, IÕd be inclined to assign it a Crime & Punishment-type rating from July 2002.

The new reality of network TV programming also calls for short 10- to 12-episode runs, as compared to the “old school” full season. This also poses a problem for non-metered markets: A new reality program can complete its entire “season” before any local ratings data is available! At first, it was easy for buyers to ignore the reality craze, especially in the summer months. But now, clients are asking why they’re absent from the “hot” shows.

Do you have a better rationale for estimating the audience delivery of some of these new programs? Send me an email, and we’ll print the best in an upcoming issue.

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