Amid a Drought of Scripted Programming, NBC Keeps It Real

For NBC in 2008, reality smells a lot like victory.

The Peacock network's "The Apprentice" franchise seemed dead in the water last year, until new NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman decided he wanted to stay in business with host Donald Trump.

The latest cycle, "The Celebrity Apprentice," has done well for its first three weeks on Thursday (though whether it can survive the firing of its most compelling celebrity, KISS frontman and entrepreneur Gene Simmons, remains to be seen).

Meanwhile, the one-two Monday-night punch of the reality competition "American Gladiator" (a resurrection of a franchise from the '80s and '90s) and the game show "Deal or No Deal" is also scoring points, ranking numbers one ("Deal") and two ("Gladiators") on Jan. 15 in the ratings for the coveted 18-49 demographic.

No doubt the strike by the Writers Guild of America, which began in early November and gradually shut down most production on scripted primetime shows - leading to a fast-dwindling supply of original episodes - has sent extra eyeballs to reality television.

But there's more to it, according to Craig Plestis, NBC Universal's senior vice-president of alternative programs and development.

"We've been able to think ahead," he says, "take our time. All of our strategy was pre-strike strategy anyway. If you look at our strategy right now, we have a fair balance of reality and scripted, because we thought ahead. This was going to be our strategy no matter what."

Plestis is still planning ahead, and on Jan. 15, NBC announced it was developing an American version of the BBC Two car-centric reality show "Top Gear," which launches a new season in the U.S. on BBC America on Feb. 25.

"Top Gear" is a freewheeling combination of "The Fast and the Furious"-style driving and "Jackass"-type stunts, with a liberal dose of "Monty Python"-esque humor.

It's that witty, absurdist, uniquely British sense of fun - along with a cheeky willingness to criticize any and all carmakers - that may be the hardest thing to translate from the original.

"It's going to have an American voice and an American tone," Plestis says. "That's all part of casting it correctly. That's why we're starting off with a pilot. This is a smart show, and by the way, it's a sexy show as well. Those cars are just beautiful."

"The time has come for a show like this on American TV, especially broadcast TV. There's nothing like it, and that's what attracts myself and Ben [Silverman] and all of us here at NBC to the show. In the same way, there was no 'American Gladiator'-type show."

"Top Gear" is also known for not being just for car snobs. While the hosts are happy to slide into the butter-soft leather sets of a high-end sports car, they also check out ordinary sedans, coupes, vans, minivans and crossovers (albeit unfamiliar, right-hand-drive British models). One of the show's regular segments features celebrities piloting a "reasonably priced car" around a test track.

"You're going to see the top-end cars," Plestis says, "as well as the fun challenges with the everyday American cars.

"Literally, when we've been talking to Paul Telegdy, who's the head over here for BBC America Worldwide, he would pull up [every day] in another gigantic car that they're test-driving, that they flew over from Germany or from some other place in the world, because all the car companies want to be part of this brand."

So, American fans of "Top Gear" will finally be able to see the hosts getting all worked up -- positively or negatively -- over makes and models they could actually buy down at the local Auto Mall.

"I love that little bit of wonkiness that happens with the show," Plestis says. "It's not a vanilla show. They get into the car culture. Their enthusiasm is infectious. It's funny. It's entertaining. It flies by. And, if we do our job correctly with the casting, hands down, it will work."

NBC has not yet given a projected airdate for its "Top Gear."

"I would like it sooner [rather] than later," Plestis says, "but I'm not going to rush it. I'm going to get this one right."

Plestis did, though, mention a couple of other upcoming reality dates, starting with a "Deal or No Deal" scheduled for Feb. 4.

"You know what we're doing?" he says. "Ten $1 million buttons. Someone can walk away with a million dollars. We're never going to do this again. If there's ever a chance that we give away a million dollars, this is going to be it. This is just too scary. I don't know what's going to happen."

And for those who wonder how it could be that Simmons was booted from "The Celebrity Apprentice" before controversial "Apprentice" alumna Omarosa, Plestis says, "You just keep watching. There's a two-hour episode coming up [on Jan. 31]. I swear, when you watch it, if this doesn't win an Emmy...literally, it's that good.

"When it ended, I was screaming at the TV set, literally. And I don't do that that often, because I watch so many rough cuts of our shows and other shows.

"It was just one of the best two hours of TV I have ever seen, and I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true."

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