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Sports Get a Dose of Reality TV

8/11/2006 8:01 PM Eastern

The script: As a high school football team marches toward their fourth state championship, the camera goes behind the scenes so viewers can get a closer look at the players and how these young athletes deal with pressures and rigors of performing on the field and with personal relationships off the field.

The scenario would most likely play well on sports-based networks ESPN or Fox Sports Net, but instead this is a new series from music and pop entertainment-based MTV: Music Television.

The skein, Two-A-Days — which debuts Aug. 23 — is one of several sports-themed cable-based reality shows currently on the air or ready to come off the bench in the near future.

Executives from non-sports networks like MTV, Sundance Channel, Black Entertainment Television and Spike TV say the combination of the competitive nature and familiarity of sports with the unpredictability and drama surrounding the lives of real people can provide a ratings touchdown for networks.

POTENT COMBINATION

Mainstream sports such as basketball, football and baseball on the professional and collegiate level, have historically been a major ratings driver for broadcast and cable networks. ESPN’s live Sunday Night Football games for example blitzed the ratings charts last year, taking 13 of the top 14 highest-rated programs on cable in 2005.

On the flip side, reality programming continues to dominate the lineups of entertainment-based networks. On the broadcast side, competition-based shows like CBS’s Survivor continue to thrive, while on cable, shows like MTV’s Laguna Beach, E!’s The Girls Next Door and VH1’s Flavor of Love continue to reel in viewers — especially the 18-49 demo coveted by advertisers.

Sundance Channel executive vice president of programming and marketing Laura Michalchyshyn, whose network is developing a college basketball-themed documentary series dubbed Nimrod Nation, says the popularity of sports and the human interest stories that reality programming builds provide for very compelling television.

Such shows also allow entertainment-based networks to infuse an element of sports into their lineups without dishing out millions of dollars for the rights to live football or basketball games.

“Given the black athlete dominance of professional sports, we would be remiss in not offering sports programming, but we’re not going to get the rights to the [National Basketball Association] games this year,” said BET president of entertainment Reginald Hudlin. “The way to do that is to get inside the personality and lives of black athletes, and I believe our sports reality shows do that.”

BET experienced ratings success earlier this year with its Season of the Tiger series, a behind the scenes look at Grambling State University’s football team and its famed marching band.

In August the 83-million subscriber network will premiere Next Level: Vince Young, focusing on the life of the former Texas Longhorns quarterback as he makes the transition to the National Football League.

But no network has had a better run with sports/reality series than Spike TV with its Ultimate Fighter franchise. The series, which pits 16 would-be mixed martial artists against each other for a shot at an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract, is the network’s highest-rated skein averaging a 1.69 household rating.

Spike TV general manger Kevin Kay said infusing the rough and tough intensity of athletic sports competition into a traditional reality series scenario gives the genre added punch in viewer appeal.

“Putting 16 people in one house isn’t an original idea.” says Kay, “But putting 16 guys in a house that settle their beef each week by beating the crap out of each other is original and different than your average reality show.”

ACTION VS. REALITY?

But with sports reality series, executives say there’s a delicate balancing act between offering smashmouth sports action which mostly attracts male viewers and more intricate, personality-driven storylines that appeal to females.

MTV vice president of development for news and documentaries Amy Bailey says that Two-A-Days will evenly split coverage of on-the-field gridiron action and the off-the-field trials and tribulations of players during the eight-episode series.

“Hopefully it will attract a male audience because of its football-driven action, but the great thing about this show is that its 50% football and 50% the other side of these kids’ lives,” she said. “What we’ve been able to do is show how everything reacts to each other both on the field and off the field.”

But whatever the split, Spike’s Kay said the success of Ultimate Fighter and other sports-tinged reality programming is predicated on building interest in the characters among viewers.

FUTURE PROGRAMMING

As for the future, Spike — which also runs Pros Vs. Joes, in which amateur athletes test their mettle against pro stars like Bo Jackson and Jerry Rice — is developing several other sports reality series in an effort to capitalize on the budding genre.

BET is also in the development stages with at least two unscripted, sports-related shows, according to Hudlin. And MTV is already considering another sports-related documentary series.

MTV’s Bailey said reality programming based on established, athletic endeavors provides viewers and networks with the best of both worlds.

“Sports provides a built-in structure and a built-in resolution that you can build a documentary series around,” she said. “We don’t have to create it … the [dramatic storyline] already exists.”

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