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Television wakes up to reality ratings check

Los Angeles, Nov. 16 (Reuters): Television networks are learning a harsh lesson in reality ' too many reality shows are a turn-off for viewers.

As broadcasters increasingly binge on unscripted shows starring ordinary folks willing to do almost anything for cash, romance or 15 minutes of fame, the burgeoning genre of reality TV appears to be wearing a bit thin with US audiences.

At the very least, networks are seeing that the appeal of reality shows has its limits.

'You had a few really good reality programmes...and now they turn them out like they were bad two-hour movies,' veteran TV producer Bernie Brillstein said on Monday. 'And they're not so cheap to make anymore.'

Inspired by the success of such blue-chip franchises as Survivor and American Idol, the networks have increasingly loaded up on unscripted knockoffs as inexpensive prime-time alternatives, especially as comedies have declined in ratings.

'It's a Band-Aid,' Brillstein said. He and other industry executives said the mainstreaming of reality shows has led them to suffer the same high casualty rates as conventional sitcoms and dramas.

'With quantity comes failure,' Fox TV reality chief Mike Darnell was quoted as saying in Daily Variety.

'It becomes a combination of mediocre shows or shows that are so similar to other shows, they don't stick out.'

Nowhere has this become more apparent lately than at Fox, which currently devotes about 60 per cent of its prime-time schedule to reality shows ' more than any other network.

After taking a dive with its much-ballyhooed boxing show, The Next Great Champ, Fox TV stumbled with two more reality launches this month ' My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss and Richard Branson's The Rebel Billionaire.

Fox is still counting on a strong performance from the forthcoming fourth installment of its hit talent show American Idol, which premieres in January.

Over at NBC, a hurriedly produced second edition of Last Comic Standing was laughed right off the network ' its finale ended up airing on cable's Comedy Central ' and $25 Million-Dollar Hoax debuted to mediocre numbers last week.

Earlier this season, ABC's The Benefactor, starring the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, proved such a ratings flop that the network wrapped it up more quickly than planned, condensing the last four episodes into two.

Even some of TV's reality stalwarts are showing some slippage. ABC's courtship contest The Bachelor has lost about a third of its audience compared with last season; NBC's Donald Trump show The Apprentice is down 18 per cent in total viewers from the same point in its first run last winter and the NBC stunt show Fear Factor is down 15 per cent from last season.

However, audiences have hardly turned their backs on reality shows altogether. The Apprentice, CBS' Survivor: Vanuatu and ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition rank in the top 10 in ratings among viewers aged 18 to 49, the group most prized by advertisers.

In fact, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, has actually seen its overall audience soar 44 per cent this season (to 16 million viewers) ' an apparent beneficiary of a trend that has seen viewers drawn more to uplifting, wish-fulfillment shows than to edgier competitions and practical-joke concepts.

In the end, however, the biggest limit to the commercial success of reality TV may be its limited shelf life in an industry whose business model hinges on the ability of producers to eventually sell their shows as reruns. 'Part of our business is to get (a show) to last so you can syndicate it,' Brillstein said. 'You can't syndicate this dreck.'

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