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Published: Saturday, 7/26/2003

`Reality' programs not for everybody

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

HOLLYWOOD - If you hate “reality” shows, you're not alone.

“The reality trend makes me puke,” said a forthright Aaron Spelling, a longtime producer of popular TV dramas, few of them critically acclaimed. “We have been approached many times about doing it. We're not going to do it, at least not as long as I'm alive.”

Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show) is no fan either.

“Most of these reality shows, they're an embarrassment,” Reiner said. “I think they're dumbing-down America.”

Even David E. Kelley, who isn't old enough to be legitimately crotchety, wrote an entire episode of The Practice earlier this year that was a screed against reality television. He was inspired, in part by ABC's decision to move The Practice up against Fox's hit Joe Millionaire, which trounced the drama in the ratings. Kelley found reality TV invading his home as his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, took an interest in Joe Millionaire.

“I was sitting at home and my wife was reading a book next to me and I put it on and she looked up about 10 minutes into it and said, `What are you watching?'

“I said, `You know, it's the competition against The Practice. I would at least like to know what it is.' About 10 minutes after that, I picked up the remote to change the channel and she said, `Wait, wait, wait. I want to see if that [witch] comes back.' I knew 15 minutes into it, this show is a monster hit.”

Kelley said he's concerned that bad television, once shunted aside, has come to the fore and diluted the ranks of creative network executives concerned about quality.

“It's a business, no one's denying it's a business. But the people in charge of this business, and by that I probably mean the studios and the networks, at one time at least championed the idea that we get to make this fantasy world that we're proud of and we want to bring to the American public,” Kelley said.

“That was the dirty little secret: Yeah, but we have to put this other stuff on the air because we have to pay our bills. But they didn't talk about it. Today, they celebrate the junk. Where once they were ashamed of it, now they'll throw a parade for themselves. That's where my frustration has been growing.”

Of course, ABC got greedy this past winter and spring, throwing too many reality shows on the air that flopped in the ratings and proved an embarrassment to the network (Are You Hot? I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Outta Here!).

“We did learn lessons from that,” said ABC Television Entertainment Group chairman Lloyd Braun, who appeared before critics with ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne. “Reality television is subject to the same laws as every other type of television. The good shows survive and the shows that aren't good enough, don't. We also learned a lot about sticking with a strategy and not getting greedy. And we've promised each other that we're going to be very militant with one another to exercise restraint and patience throughout the year because it gets easy to think you have something in your back pocket that's a quick fix.”

CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves called Survivor and American Idol the Rolls-Royces of reality shows. Where do other series fit in the car brand analogy?

“Well, Amazing Race is probably a Cadillac,” Moonves said. “Big Brother and Cupid may be a Chevy Impala. But, by the way, I'm very happy to have a couple Chevy Impalas in my garage, too.”

But he's not always fond of discussing his Impalas. The current fourth edition of Big Brother has included sex acts by participants (although more emphasized in the online live Internetcast than on TV) and a discussion of genital warts suffered by one houseguest.

“I can't believe we're talking about this at press tour,” Moonves said at one point during a Q&A with TV critics. “We'll talk about this on the side, OK?”

But as executives from virtually every network have stressed, the best shows survive. One that's yet to premiere certainly qualifies as immensely entertaining. Fox's The Simple Life takes wealthy young heiresses Paris Hilton (descended from the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain) and Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel Richie) and deposits them on a farm in Arkansas.

The results are hilarious, and because it's culturally OK to laugh at the rich, so far no one is greeting this reality version of Green Acres with the same protests that marked CBS's proposed reality take on The Beverly Hillbillies.

“[Reality shows] are a very relevant form to the young adult audience,” said Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president. “[With The Real World], MTV has tuned a generation of young viewers into this habit.”

The Simple Life was set to debut in mid-August, but Fox is now so confident about its success that the network is gambling that Life can draw a crowd opposite original scripted programming this fall. A new time slot and premiere date have not yet been announced.

There's got to be a punchline in this somewhere: This fall Fox debuts a new drama called Skin about the son of the Los Angeles district attorney (Kevin Anderson) who falls in love with the daughter of a pornography impresario (Ron Silver).

Did anyone expect this show to air on CBS? Clearly, it's a Fox series through and through. But executive producer Jim Leonard said viewers expecting anything more than the increasingly permissive broadcast networks will allow might be disappointed by the amount of flesh on display in Skin. (Still, Leonard, who has children age 13 and 15, said he won't let the younger one watch Skin.)

“If people want to stay with the show just because of the porn aspect, they're going to be ultimately disappointed. The show is going to be a character-driven, multilayered urban drama.”

Newcomers D.J. Corona, 22, and Olivia Wilde, 19, play the Romeo and Juliet-like lovers.

“The pressure is creating the perfect romance, romance everybody cares so much about, that they really invest their feelings in what happens to it,” Wilde said. “If we were just kind of an average teenage romance, you wouldn't care whether we stayed together or whether our parents wanted us to be together or not.”

Romance aside, some viewers will take offense at the backdrop, but Leonard said he specifically resisted suggestions that he first offer the show to more permissive pay cable networks.

“I didn't want this to be a salacious show, I wanted it to be a character-driven show,” he said. “Our goal is to take the `soap' out of `soap opera' to make an operatic, hard-driving, character-driven show.”

Executive producer Jonathan Littman, who's producing Skin with CSI honcho Jerry Bruckheimer, said the series will succeed if it can make the world of pornography come alive. Silver said he's most interested in seeing how his character compartmentalizes his life: He complies with the law and is raising a family, but he's still a pornographer.

“There are people who are CEOs of some very mainstream legitimate businesses and what they do corporately to maximize shareholder value is a whole different set of ethical rules than they would apply in their home life or to their friends,” Silver said. “They clearly differentiate, 'That's my job and it has nothing to do with what I want to teach my children, to be productive members of society.' ”

Some might assume Anderson's district attorney, who attempts to prosecute Silver's porn king, is the hero of Skin, but that's not what producers intend, making him power-hungry rather than noble.

“This show is all about where the lines are and how you cross them and where your shadow falls across that line,” Leonard said.

It's somewhat surprising to see Fox go the serialized drama route, because it bucks current TV trends. Competing networks are more focused on procedural shows with close-ended stories (e.g., CSI, Without a Trace, Law & Order). Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said it's a conscious effort on her network's part to woo female viewers who defected from Fox after Ally McBeal, only to return in the past year for Joe Millionaire and American Idol.

“Reality programming is teaching us that people are very interested in serialized programming and especially young people, and we're interested in young people at Fox,” Berman said.

In addition to Skin, Fox will roll out The O.C. in early August. It's another serialized drama that has the theme of young love, as a bad boy moves in with a wealthy Orange County family and falls for the girl next door. Berman dismisses any notion that the two series are overly similar.

Skin is going to be dealing with political intrigue and race relations and the political ambitions of the Los Angeles district attorney, who chooses to marry a Latina and live in a Latin area of L.A. in order to further his political ambition,” she said. “The O.C. is very much in keeping with the 90210 kind of audience. It's a much less ambitious canvas, a very good big soap. Skin has much more grand expectations.”

Although Fox canceled John Doe, Berman got details from the writers on what they planned to do with the character. How did he have seemingly endless knowledge?

“When you are about to die and you see the white light in the tunnel right before you cross over to the next world, you are [endowed] with all the information you will need to get to the next level,” Berman said. “The only problem for John Doe is he didn't die. He came closer to death than anyone and then he came back and yet he'd forgotten the very essence of who he is. And there were people who knew this.”

Fox executives acknowledged that canceling shows without giving a conclusion can frustrate viewers, but they said it's all a matter of business.

“The bottom line is we're constantly in cost-benefits mode,” said Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow. “When a show isn't highly rated enough to warrant what is frequently a $40 million investment in a second season of 22 episodes, including marketing expenditures, you make the tough decision and that's what we've had to make.”

In fairness, viewers' anger is often better directed at producers who opt for a cliffhanger even when they know there's a good chance their show won't be renewed.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, who is on the Television Critics Association Press Tour, is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.



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