By Leah Hochbaum
NBC Universal’s new chairperson and chief executive Jeff Zucker made waves late last year when he announced that in an effort to cut costs, the network would steer clear of scripted programming during the 8 p.m. hour and would instead showcase game shows, reality shows and other lower-cost fare in the coveted primetime slot. And just this week, after a number of its series began to wilt in the shadow of Fox powerhouse American Idol, the peacock net bent over backwards to create a new viewing experience, shifting unscripted shows Grease: You’re the One That I Want, Deal or No Deal and The Apprentice: Los Angeles into an unscripted Sunday night block. It seems that after years of enduring the condemnation of critics the world over, reality television is finally getting some respect.
In fact, after the debacle that was the 2006 U.S. fall season — with its glut of dramatic, hard-to-follow, scripted series — U.S. networks are looking to fill up their schedules with lighter, unscripted content. And around the globe, other nets are following suit.
“Game shows and reality shows are doing well in Latin America,” said Telemundo’s Marcos Santana. “We have a game/dating show called 12 Hearts (12 Corazones), which has been a total success for our station and has increased its time slot ratings more than 100 percent.”
Reality shows are doing well in Canada too. CTV, Canada’s largest private broadcaster, has inked a duo of deals with Mark Burnett Productions, the reality producers behind such pioneering series as Survivor, The Apprentice and the Eco-Challenge adventure race. CTV has picked up the Canadian Broadcast rights to Pirate Master: The Adventure Begins, a swashbuckling, plank-walking new unscripted series set to debut this summer, as well as On the Lot, a show that will award one contestant with a life-changing, exclusive Hollywood deal with DreamWorks.
“Pirate Master promises to be jolly good summer fun,” said Susanne Boyce, CTV’s president of Programming and chair of the CTV Media Group. “It’s complete escapism and will make for rollicking summer viewing.”
Yet while some programmers schedule a show for some simple summer fun, others have more lofty notions on their minds when figuring out their slates. Granada International recently licensed ITV Productions format Boot Camp to Rustavi 2 in Georgia, Eastern Europe. The series follows 16 contestants as they try to survive a military-style boot camp. “We believe Boot Camp will be of particular interest as Georgia has just entered into an intensive dialogue process with NATO, which means that we are on our way to becoming a full-fledged NATO country, and there is now huge interest in national army issues among ordinary people,” said Rustavi 2’s Giorgi Khaburzania.
“For a country like Georgia to want to produce Boot Camp is amazing,” added Jennifer Harrington, who heads up Granada’s factual department. The company is hoping that Rustavi 2’s pick-up of the series will revive interest in the format, which flagged in 2001 after CBS and Mark Burnett filed a lawsuit claiming that Boot Camp (which aired on Fox in the U.S.) was a rip-off of Burnett’s own Survivor. “We’re hoping that if the format is successful in Georgia, it’ll bring it back to life,” said Harrington.
But though she’s hopeful that Boot Camp will finally gain a foothold, Harrington stressed that Granada International’s extensive catalog has something for everyone. “We’re working hard pushing [format] Dancing on Ice,” she said. “But honestly, we’ve seen a lot of the dancing shows. We’re waiting for new trends to emerge now in reality television. If I knew what those trends would be, I’d be a millionaire.”
CABLEready president and CEO Gary Lico was also unable to pinpoint any discernible trends in current reality programming other than that “for the most part, the Big Brothers and Apprentices have been out of favor for a while, design competitions are internationally looked on with favor — both as acquisitions and format sales — and cooking shows seem to be popular the world over,” he said. But whatever new shows are looming on the horizon, Lico’s quite certain that “reality’s here to stay in every way, shape and form.”