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An On-Air Reality Check for Actors and Writers Producers of nonfiction programs are the ones in demand as network executives seek breathing room by turning to low-cost alternatives.

Paul Brownfield and Brian Lowry are Times staff writers

Despite all the hours devoted to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the quiz show didn’t have a category to compete in at this year’s Emmy Awards ceremony. So one of prime time’s top-rated programs ended up being entered for--and winning--a Daytime Emmy Award, even though it is broadcast no earlier than 8 p.m.

Such is traditionally the lot of those in the television industry who draw paychecks from so-called alternative programming--really code for anything that doesn’t fit in the neat categories of comedy and drama. It’s a genre given so little respect that “reality” is broadly lumped into two prime-time Emmy categories, “nonfiction” and “informational,” tossing History Channel documentaries and CBS’ “Survivor” into the same general mix.

Suddenly, however, the industry’s less-heralded stepchildren increasingly find themselves thrust into the prime-time spotlight. And if writers and actors are sweating out the threat of strikes by their unions next year, “I’m busier than ever” appears to be a common refrain from those who work on unscripted fare.

While it’s a conversation some in the TV business would prefer not to engage in openly, there are those who potentially benefit from strikes by writers and actors--including producers of made-for-TV movies, with the networks accelerating orders, some say, in an effort to have more material stockpiled should a strike occur.

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Then there are those people who make their living, in a nutshell, on programs that don’t require the services of writers and actors. It’s difficult to sort out, of course, to what extent the heightened production of “reality” shows stems from network fear of strikes and how much is the standard rush to imitate any unqualified hit, a status “Survivor” achieved over the summer.

Yet whatever the ultimate reason--and most concur it is a combination of “Survivor’s” success, production economics and the potential strikes--established reality and alternative programming producers find themselves frantically shooting series, pitching to networks and combing the international market for concepts that might translate well in the U.S.

“Everybody is in the game now,” says Mike Darnell, executive vice president of specials for Fox, who estimates that Fox has ordered 90 episodes of reality programming so far this season. Spread out over 10 shows, that represents an increase of a third over last season at a network that has always been aggressive in providing “alternative” programming.

It’s also clear having “reality” shows on a network’s schedule or in reserve is one hedge against the possibility that writers will stop writing and actors will skip work when strike deadlines arrive next summer.

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Less through planning than happenstance, ABC and CBS each underscored the viability of alternative programming leading up to union negotiations in the form of “Millionaire” and “Survivor,” respectively, and while no one thinks the networks can get by without scripted sitcoms, dramas and movies, the prospect of having to cobble together a temporary prime-time schedule with reruns, movies, extra newsmagazines and “reality” shows doesn’t look quite as bad.

Fox Entertainment Group President Sandy Grushow has discussed the need for networks to balance the cost of their lineups, recently pointing out that the clip-based “reality” show “Police Videos,” which airs at 8 p.m. Fridays, is undoubtedly more profitable for Fox than CBS’ competing drama “The Fugitive,” which costs far more to produce.

The fact that major networks have opened their doors to such programming has been significant to those employed in this arena.

“There may be more places to go” with talent, says Susan Simons, an agent at the Irv Schechter Co., whose clients include directors and producers of game shows and alternative series. “I have not stopped making deals.”

Phil Gurin has been producing prime-time reality specials, series and game shows for a decade--everything from last year’s reprised quiz show “Twenty-One” on NBC to the Fox specials “When Cameras Cross the Line” and “Only Joking"--a breezy, quick-hit, hidden-camera series that recently finished production on a six-episode order. Gurin is also trying to sell Comedy Central on a comedy series he sees as “a signature counterpoint to the seriousness of these other reality shows.”

To Gurin, the rush on reality is at least helping a certain subset of Hollywood get work--segment producers, field directors, researchers--not to mention attorneys specializing in risk management, given the tricky legal ramifications of putting ordinary people in extreme situations on shows like “Survivor” and ABC’s upcoming “The Mole.”

“During the years of the great stretch of sitcoms, I had a lot of friends doing reality who couldn’t get arrested,” Gurin says. “The wheels of show business turn.”

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As a reality producer, Gurin likes to think of himself as one “the Marines of television,” someone upon whom the networks increasingly rely but who operates on the margins of the acclaim and leeway afforded the likes of writer-producers such as Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley. Producer Erik Nelson, whose credits include “World’s Most Dangerous Animals” and “Busted on the Job,” once called reality specials “the lowly foot soldiers of sweeps. I’m not even sure they get ‘broadcast.’ They ‘escape.’ ”

Lately, Gurin has seen several trends: a heightened search for international formats in light of the success of European imports “Survivor” and “Millionaire,” and an increasing mandate from broadcast networks for their executives to find cost-effective alternative hits.

“I’m always pitching to guys who would buy [alternative programming],” Gurin says. “But their bosses are more open to filling out their schedules [with such shows] than in the past.” Still, he adds, “I’m not necessarily feeling it’s a race to get strike-proof programming.”

“There are an awful lot of people talking about strike-proof programming. We don’t see it that way,” agrees Scott Stone, founding partner of Stone-Stanley Productions, which is producing “The Mole” for ABC and the WB’s “Popstars"--both premiering in January--as well as a host of programming in the cable and syndication markets.

Many of the ideas being bought, Stone adds, would be moving regardless of the threat of a walkout by the industry’s writers. “The ones on the air are unique, well-produced and capturing the imagination of the audience,” he says. “The networks have to do something different to get the attention of the audience.”

Several eyebrow-raising projects, meanwhile, underscore the difficulty of creating “event” reality programming. NBC’s “Destination Mir,” from “Survivor” executive producer Mark Burnett, has been thrown into uncertainty by Russia’s decision to ditch the space station. And ABC’s “The Runner,” in which contestants have to make their way across the country without being identified, hasn’t managed to find its way out of development.

ABC does have “The Mole” and “You Don’t Know Jack,” a comedy game show adapted from a CD-ROM game. Also in the pipeline are “Public Property,” a British import in which a person’s private decisions become public fodder; and “The Wayne Brady Show,” a variety series in development for Wayne Brady, a regular on ABC’s improv sketch comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?"--itself imported from England.

Andrea Wong, ABC vice president in charge of specials and alternative programming, says the prospect of a writers’ strike “has not affected the way we buy” shows.

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Still, Wong acknowledges that unscripted shows like “Millionaire” and “Whose Line” are attractive to a network in a time of uncertainty because “you can expand and contract” the number of shows you order according to need. And some executives are willing to concede the reality genre is benefiting from networks hedging against a strike.

“Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf, meanwhile, fears any prolonged strike might compel networks reeling from those financial losses to put more emphasis on lower-cost programming in the walkout’s aftermath, turning the reality trend into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wolf notes that viewing of the major networks dropped a steep 9% after the last writers’ strike in 1988, and that programmers were hard-pressed to reclaim those viewers.

“The audience is going to be diminished, and the networks might decide they’re not going to throw good money after bad,” Wolf says. “That’s a legitimate concern.”

Some talent agents--who could be hit especially hard if commissions to writers stop flowing--also see inherent risks in ceasing production. Indeed, alternative programming began to establish its toehold during the 1988 strike, when Fox developed two shows, “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted,” which still remain on the air.

The same could be true for newsmagazines, with 10 hours of prime-time news currently scheduled on ABC, CBS and NBC during an average week--hours that cost less to program than sitcoms or dramas.

The current sensitivity level is such that the agents who specialize in alternative programming at the William Morris Agency--and have been behind a horde of these deals, including “Survivor,” “Millionaire,” “Big Brother” and “The Mole"--were reluctant to be interviewed about what a strike would mean for them, afraid that context would position the agency as undermining the writers it represents. A similar response came from Creative Artists Agency.

Despite the fear of alienating the writing community, talent agencies and producers are, by being involved in alternative fare as well as scripted programming, trying to put multiple oars in the water, to keep some kind of motion going in case the industry really does grind to a halt. The list includes producer Jerry Bruckheimer, behind an ambitious “race around the world” project for CBS.

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At Fox, Darnell says, the emphasis has been on ordering series instead of one-time-only specials. This includes three programs set to debut in the coming weeks and months with an eye to heading off (and catching) “Survivor II” mania: “Temptation Island,” which features couples sent to an island where singles “test their commitments” to each other; “Boot Camp,” a “Survivor"-like competition set in a Marine boot camp; and “Love Cruise,” with sexy singles mingling on a ship together.

Paul Stojanovich, producer of Fox’s “Police Videos,” is also producing a show for the network called “Code Red: Moment of Survival,” documenting emergencies and rescues caught on tape; and “Getaway,” a UPN special that has cops attempting to capture top race-track and stunt drivers.

Both could be metaphors for how strikes could impact parts of the entertainment industry: a crisis for some and a race for others just to keep up.

“Television does run in cycles of popularity,” Stojanovich says. “But if it’s done well, people can’t seem to get enough of reality television.”

That said, it’s a premise the networks and guilds hope they don’t have to put to the test--and despite the newfound emphasis on alternative formats, even its producers admit they still aren’t viewed as a primary option.

“They fall back on reality more than look to develop it,” Stojanovich says. “The networks still [would rather] do the most engaging drama.”


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