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As strike winds down, reality TV grows up

Over the past three months, the writer’s strike gave non-scripted TV some unprecedented attention and the newfound responsibility of keeping the networks afloat.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Survivor” is now old enough to drive. “Big Brother” and “The Bachelor” are tweens. “The Real World” will soon reach legal drinking age. And long-gone reality TV shows like the “The Mole” and “Paradise Hotel” are being brought out of retirement.

Over the past three months, the writers’ strike gave non-scripted TV some unprecedented attention and the newfound responsibility of keeping the networks afloat. But many of the genre’s top franchises had already been riding a wave of small-screen stability long before the scribes picked up their picket signs.

“It’s like an old friend,” says Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative entertainment. “People love these shows. They’re going to keep watching them. I think the benefit to reality shows is that they have a completely new cast and completely new feel every six months. It’s their greatest advantage over the scripted shows.”

“Big Brother,” premiering Tuesday, is in its ninth edition. Last Thursday’s “Survivor: Micronesia,” which pits a team of show fans against returning all-stars, debut marked the “Robinson Crusoe” competition’s 16th season. ABC announced last Tuesday that British financier Matt Grant will be the 12th “Bachelor.” Meanwhile, producers are currently searching for yet another set of seven strangers to live together for the 21st edition of MTV’s “The Real World.”

All that non-scripted TV adds up to way more reality TV contestants than Dunder Mifflin employees, Oceanic Flight 815 survivors, Wisteria Lane residents and Princeton-Plainsboro doctors. Combined.

“These shows continue to be popular for the same reason ‘Law & Order’ is still popular,” says Laurie Ouellette, co-editor of the book “Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture” and a media professor at the University of Minnesota. “You know exactly what’s going to happen on ‘Survivor’ even if there are little surprises from one episode to the next.”

Longer run than ‘Friends’Of course, for every “American Idol,” there’s a dozen “Bachelorettes In Alaska.” (Fox’s icy dating show went into deep freeze in 2002 after just one season.) But compared with prime-time scripted shows these days, reality TV seemingly has more staying power. “Survivor,” “Amazing Race,” “Bachelor” and “Real World” are now older than such long-running scripted series as “MASH,” “Cheers,” “Murphy Brown” and “Friends” — and they’re still chugging along.

“It’s become an enormous staple,” says Darnell. “TV as we know it would be unsurvivable without reality TV, both creatively and economically. Every network, in one way or another, relies on reality. That’s a fact.”

As audiences learned from the importance placed on reality TV during the writers’ strike, the genre is cheaper and easier to produce than scripted fare. It’s also simple to drop into the schedule. When CBS’ musical-drama “Viva Laughlin” premiered to low ratings last year, the network plugged an already completed 12th edition of “Amazing Race” in its place.

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Smart move. That premiere earned CBS the best debut ratings ever for the Emmy-winning, voyeuristic series, reaffirming faith in the vitality of the graying competition. With several non-scripted shows entering old age — by TV standards, anyway — producers now have to work harder to make the jaws of seen-it-all-before audiences drop.

“You’ve got to know everything you’ve already done,” says Mike Fleiss, “Bachelor” executive producer. “If you haven’t really been around every day, you won’t know what’s fresh and what’s not. Much like a writer, you just have to sit there and think of new twists and gimmicks. Sometimes it just pops up in front of you.”

Such as when Fleiss learned that one of the female contestants on the upcoming 12th “Bachelor” season happened to have a “condition that has tremendous dramatic and comedic potential.” It’s a plot twist Fleiss says he would’ve never been able to think up on his own.

“When reality TV works well, it’s completely unpredictable,” say Fleiss. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s not so pat. It’s not so scripted. I think that’s why audiences initially responded to it in the beginning.”

Resurrecting ‘The Mole’ and ‘Paradise Hotel’
Two networks are hoping to mine a couple of presumed-dead reality shows for such unpredictability. ABC and the Fox Reality Channel are resurrecting “The Mole” and “Paradise Hotel,” respectively. Off the air for over three years, both series were previously thought to be extinct.

“The unscripted format must be getting mature if you can revive previous hits,” says David Lyle, president of the Fox Reality Channel. “It’s been going for long enough that you can get nostalgic about reality shows. Who ever would’ve thought that would happen?”

For real.

It was the summer of 2003 when the sudsy “Paradise Hotel” first premiered on Fox. Martha Stewart was being indicted, Valerie Plame’s cover was being leaked and 11 resort-confined singles were being watched and eliminated nearly in real time on Fox. Cut to four years later: Season two is now airing on the Fox Reality Channel and MyNetworkTV.

“One of the reasons we wanted to bring back ‘Paradise Hotel’ is because we felt that the fun-in-the-sun sexy type of reality show had fallen by the wayside,” says Lyle. “Of all of them, ‘Paradise Hotel’ had the greatest residual memory.”

But also gone are the days when audiences accepted reality TV as reality. Figuring out what’s staged and what’s not on MTV’s “The Hills” has become a new pastime. “The Bachelor” is on a well-publicized losing streak when it comes to fabricating lasting relationships. And the winning title of “Top Model” and “Apprentice” have lost all luster.

Doesn’t matter. Lyle says audience research shows fans simply don’t care about phoniness — with one exception.

“The only thing they really want to be real are the individuals,” he says. “Inevitably, they are. It’s funny. On the set of ‘Paradise Hotel 2,’ once the cast got inside the world of the production, they really became the guests of ‘Paradise Hotel.’ The construct is so powerful that they surrender to it.”