Rather than assault viewers with images of contestants threatened by flames and alligators, basic cable seems intent to lure audiences with real-life human stories that are both dramatic and comedic in nature. And it's finding these stories in unusual places.
Who but MTV: Music Television — a veteran reality-TV innovator with The Real World, and the home of Jackass— would come up with a "reality sitcom" centered on heavy-metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his family?
MTV dreamed up the idea for the series The Osbournes
(which debuts March 5) after a camera crew spent time with Osbourne's wife and children when taping an MTV Cribs
episode at the rocker's home. The dynamic of a family that's nontraditional, but still loving, intrigued MTV officials.
"We looked at that and said, 'There's something there,'" said MTV president of entertainment Brian Graden.
For the new series, an MTV camera crew essentially moved in with the Osbourne clan and taped the everyday goings-on at their new Hollywood home.
"The show is a series of vignettes," Graden said. "It's scene-driven. And there is obvious love and affection shown by the family. They are just wildly compelling."
Cable has already launched several reality series this year. January saw the premiere of USA's Combat Missions
and Bravo's The It Factor.
Combat Missions—which has racked up some respectable numbers—comes from executive producer Mark Burnett, the reality TV maestro behind Survivor
and USA's Eco-Challenge.
was a first," Burnett said. "It was rich and innovative. But it's up to myself to do something different. And this [Combat Missions] is a whole new look at TV."
Also in January, Oxygen rolled out Women & the Badge
and E! Entertainment Television introduced Vegas Showgirls: Nearly Famous, a nine-part "reality mini-series" centering on six Vegas dancers—including two men.
And there's more to come. Court TV's schedule this year will include the new documentary series Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice, as well the reality-detective show Memphis Homicide Squad. Due in April, Memphis
is a follow-up to Brooklyn North Homicide Squad.
On Mother's Day, Hallmark Channel will debut Adoption, another one-hour non-scripted reality series. And in the fall, The History Channel will bow The Ship, which duplicates Capt. James Cook's 18th-century South China Sea journey, using an exact replica of his vessel, Endeavor, manned by a modern-day crew.
TNN: The National Network and ESPN will also continue to expand into reality programming.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some TV industry pundits feared Americans would totally lose their appetite for cynical reality shows such as Fear Factor
. As it turns out, viewers have not dismissed the genre out of hand. Rather, they're tuning in to some reality shows and nixing others.
So while Survivor: Africa's finale in January didn't do as well as the first two, it still racked up sizable numbers, averaging 27.3 million viewers per Nielsen Media Research. Yet late last month, Fox yanked The Chamber
off the air, putting it on hiatus after just one play in its regular Friday time slot.
Cable networks will continue to slot reality-based series in their lineups because it is a "cost-effective format," said deal-maker and cable-network consultant Ray Solley.
But since Sept. 11, Solley said, cable programmers are looking for "less exploitative, less competitive" reality fare.
"No one expects a huge wave of feel-good programming, but I do think there will be a lighter touch," he said.
Referring to the current environment, A&E Network alumnus and Animal Planet general manager Michael Cascio said: "A lot of networks are going to soften their programming. And in this ad-sales climate, networks are worried that advertisers will not support controversial programming."
What has been dubbed "reality TV" broadly falls into two categories — non-fiction, unscripted dramas and game shows. There are also hybrids, like Survivor.
USA's 15-week Combat Missions
pits four teams—a mix of non-active Green Berets, Marine Recons, Navy SEALS, Delta Force commandos, Central Intelligence Agency operatives and S.W.A.T. members—against one another in grueling missions. When a team loses a mission, it must "discharge" one of its members.
The series is different for its epic scale, which Burnett called more akin to film then television. And while most "unscripted" reality shows like Survivor
depict contestants in a "fish-out-of-water" environment, whether on a tropical island or in the Australian outback, Combat Missions
is "a-fish-in-water" show in which ex-military men undertake combat-like tasks, he said.
"It's a whole new way of looking at reality," Burnett said. "There is no duplicity. It's all done with honesty. This is a new evolution."
Participants in Combat Missions
are "the elite of the elite," said USA senior vice president of alternative programming and specials Chris Sloan.
"The main complaint about reality television is that it's petty, that people become famous without any reason, that it's just a game to them," Sloan said. "In Combat Missions
, to them, this is in a way their Olympics.
"This is all about the team. There is no backstabbing. Someone may sacrifice themselves for the good of the team."
This year's Eco-Challenge
on USA, also produced by Burnett and set to air in April, will evolve to better compete, and distinguish itself, from a crowded field of sports and reality TV programming, said Gordon Beck, USA's senior vice president of sports and production programming. This year's race, held in New Zealand, will emphasize the participants rather than their feats.
"Due to the proliferation of reality shows, we continue to try to raise the bar on Eco-Challenge, to make it compelling TV, human drama," Beck said. "It's evolved into a program that's about the human dynamics of teamwork."
Bravo's The It Factor
follows the trials and tribulations of 12 struggling actors and actresses in New York City. Originally set to launch in September, Bravo decided to delay its debut until January because of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It felt all wrong for the time," said Bravo senior vice president of programming Frances Berwick. But Bravo believes the series, which hasn't performed well in the ratings, fits the network's brand.
"We spend a lot of time [with programming] on established artists," Berwin said. "We thought it would be interesting to show how they got to the point where they're sitting on stage with Jim Lipton."
Though Berwick described The It Factor
as reality TV, she said it chronicles real actors whose struggles make for compelling drama.
She doesn't predict a long run for shows like The Chair
"It's hard to imagine any of these succeeding," Berwin said. "After a point, where can you go with that? The market is reaching the saturation point. But there's always room for human-interest stories."
That's what Oxygen is aiming for with its 13-part series Women & the Badge, which the network describes as its "homage" to female police officers. The program is "very emblematic" of the women's network, said president of programming Debby Beece.
"These women don't get a lot of attention," Beece said. "We're trying to find the heart of the story, and not be edgy or exploitative, defining what we think is missing for women on television. And we have a number of reality shows in the works, which will be personal, heartfelt and emotional. Our audience believes in real stories."
Lifetime Television's tack on reality programming is similar to Oxygen's.
"Reality on Lifetime hasn't changed," said vice president of reality programming Bill Brand. "It's about real women. It's not about a game on an island or a chair."
The weekly series Women Docs, which tracks real-life physicians who work in hospitals, is meant to connect audiences with the emotions of these doctors and their patients, according to Brand.
E! executive vice president of entertainment Mark Sonnenberg knows where the appeal of such reality shows as MTV's The Osbournes
and his network's own Vegas Showgirls: Nearly Famous
"People are voyeuristic by nature," he said. "We're fascinated by what goes on behind the curtain."
E!'s viewers want to be closer to celebrities, and find out more about the. The documentary Nearly Famous
will follow those the entertainment business who are at the edge of fame.
The network has more reality fare slated for later this year. In March, E! premieres TV Tales, which offers the inside dope on how popular series made it to air. The concept for TV Tales
was sparked by the ratings success that The E! True Hollywood Story
has had with episodes on such TV shows as The BeverlyHillbillies
In August, E! plans a major event to debut of Royalty A-Z, which Prince Edward is producing in time for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. E! plans to air the series for two hours over seven or eight nights, according to Sonnenberg.
"We're fascinated by the royal family," he said. "They are celebrities."
Documentary and reality programming is a major cornerstone of Court TV's schedule. The network reassessed its approach to the genre in light of last year's terrorist attacks, said executive vice president of programming and marketing Art Bell.
"After Sept. 11, everyone took a good hard look at what's happening in this genre," he said. "We have pretty much stuck to the kind of programming our audience likes to see."
Court TV has always focused on the investigative work done by the civil servants who emerged as heroes during the terrorist attacks, such as police and firefighters, Bell said.
"And all our shows come with closure," he said. "People are brought to justice. That's a very satisfying thing at this time."
Writer Dunne's show will examine real cases that involve the rich and famous, taking his point of view as to the extent the legal system gives them special treatment,
"It's a show we have wanted to do with Dominick for a long time," Bell said. "He's a great storyteller."
Broadcast reality shows such as Survivor
and Fear Factor
are essentially all turbo-charged game shows. That can work both ways, said Game Show Network senior vice president of programming Bob Boden.
"All game shows are by definition reality shows," he said. "They use real people in unscripted situations.
"So we're doing reality television. We're doing it our style. We're looking for traditional formats with contemporary twists."
GSN's new show, Russian Roulette, will debut in April. Contestants who offer a wrong answer are forced to pull a lever, and can be eliminated by falling through a hole in the floor. Some TV critics have compared Russian Roulette
with The Chamber
and The Chair, but Boden denied any similarities, despite the drop-door gimmick.
"We're really not torturing people, or manipulating their vital signs," Boden said. "It's just a really cool visual effect. No one gets hurt. It's just a way to eliminate a contestant."
This fall, The History Channel will present a unique take on reality programming with the six-hour The Ship, in which a crew of experienced sailors and novices will replicate Cook's late 1700's trip. They'll travel in a ship modeled exactly after Cook's, with only the technology and amenities of his day—including one toilet for a nearly 60-member crew.
"We see this as a real historical adventure," said executive producer Susan Werbe. "Reality programming for the most part has involved appealing to the worst in human nature: greed, manipulation, winning a prize.
"This appeals to the best in human nature. It only succeeds with teamwork. And there is no prize. This is a new way of looking at history."
Reality shows are already a component of ESPN's new original-entertainment programming, and they'll continue to be, said senior vice president and general manager of programming Mark Shapiro.
Although reality programming isn't as hot as it had been, the genre still has a lot going for it, said Shapiro.
"It's less expensive television and it's stickier television," he said, meaning that viewers stay tuned to the shows.
In January, ESPN debuted the 13-episode Down Low: Life in the D League, which chronicles the off-court lives of the North Charleston Lowgators, part of the National Basketball Association's new development league.
And earlier this month, ESPN aired the two-part The Season: Behind Bars, a documentary that follows a football team at a maximum-security juvenile detention center in Texas.
A month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, ESPN had been set to launch a reality show called Beg, Borrow and B.S.
In that show, contestants were to be dropped off in New York City with no money or transportation. They'd have 45 days to get to Los Angeles, completing sports challenges along the way to the West Coast.
ESPN postponed the program's debut after the terrorist attack because of security issues created by that situation, according to Shapiro. The show is still in development, but has been put on hold.
"Reality is still intriguing to viewers, because it's an escape," he said. "Post-Sept. 11, people are looking for family themes and escape on television. We're going to take risks, because the real risk is not taking one.
"But we can't do anything to damage the brand or alienate audience," he cautioned.
Reality programming is inexpensive and has a quick development timetable, so the relaunched TNN (formerly The Nashville Network) has made use of it to move away from its country-music roots.
"We were trying to turn around TNN very quickly, but scripted shows take too long to develop," TNN general manager Diane Robina said.
The network is now taping a pilot for a show about a two-on-two basketball team that barnstorms across the U.S., for which actor David Duchovny serves as executive producer.
It's also ordered a pilot for Oblivious, described as a combination of a game show and Candid Camera. Oblivious
will use hidden cameras to ask unsuspecting man-on-the-street "contestants" questions, and then reward them for their correct answers.
"We're doing nonscripted television, or shows that are reality-based," Robina said. "They are on a comedic level and are not mean-spirited at all."
Documentaries — the original reality programming, if you will — are National Geographic Channel's bread and butter. And the network is offering an unusual take on a subject that's been the topic of many documentaries: mummies.
In April, NGC will debut The Mummy Road Show, the tale of two professors who travel around to conduct diagnostic tests on mummies, including a woman in Nashville who was mummified in the early 1900s by the arsenic she drank to commit suicide.
"This is another way to make factual programming much more palpable for our viewers," said NGC executive vice president of programming, production and news Andrew Wilk. "Mummies exist all over the world, not just in Egypt."