Reality Shows Put NBC on Defensive


A year ago, NBC's West Coast President Scott Sassa and Entertainment President Garth Ancier stood side by side, fielding questions from the press regarding their tardiness in developing alternative program formats--perceived foot-dragging that drew a rebuke from NBC's corporate bosses, who bristled as ABC and CBS drank in the rewards of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor," respectively.

This Thursday, Sassa--with Ancier's replacement, former "Today" producer Jeff Zucker--will be back in Pasadena addressing the same gathering of TV critics and reporters. Only this time, it's anticipated the discussion will focus in part on the depths to which NBC has plunged in mining that programming terrain--jeopardizing, some have argued, its "Must-See TV" image.

Both Sassa, 42, and Zucker, 36, insisted during an interview last week at their offices in Burbank that they are comfortable with NBC's freshly minted foray into unscripted television with the summer series "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV." The former features contestants vying for $50,000 by engaging in various stunts--which have included being buried neck-deep in rats and worms--while the latter is a hidden-camera show that subjects its dupes to pranks such as embroiling them in a high-speed chase.

Both programs have garnered impressive ratings, performing so well within the young-adult age brackets used to negotiate advertising rates that NBC has confirmed ordering 13 additional episodes of each for broadcast during the coming season.

At the same time, to dabble in understatement, the critics have not been kind. The Washington Post's Tom Shales called "Fear Factor" "a sickening exercise in cruelty and venality." Robert Bianco of USA Today said the two shows exhibit "the vilest form of human desperation and an absolute disregard for human dignity."

Perhaps of more concern to NBC are suggestions the network's imprimatur of quality--embodied by such Emmy-winning series as "ER" and "Frasier"--has been sullied by what is viewed as pandering to the public's basest appetites.

"There is a perception out there that we were going to put on these shows and bring down our brand," Sassa acknowledged, adding that NBC remains network television's leader in awards and accolades. In expanding its programming menu, he said, "Our biggest goal was not to sacrifice that attribute."

NBC officials contend they have done nothing to undermine the network's prestige; in fact, analysis of the ratings finds "Fear Factor," "Spy TV" and the quiz show "Weakest Link," featuring nasty British host Anne Robinson, all performing disproportionately well among the affluent, college-educated viewers NBC boasts about attracting with "The West Wing."

"We're surprised," Zucker conceded about the audience profile, indicating the programs may be reaching a more refined demographic because they play on NBC.

Cable networks have long garnered attention with boundary-pushing programs, from MTV's "Jackass" to HBO's "Real Sex." The same holds true with syndicated programs shown on broadcast stations, such as "Jerry Springer."

Yet the major networks were perceived to be different--a sense recently summed up in the Myers Report column by Ed Martin, who asked in regard to "Fear Factor," "Shouldn't broadcast television be better than this?"

Having worked in broadcast news before migrating West seven months ago, Zucker recognized that NBC's summer tryouts would not be embraced by the press.

"Before these programs went on . . . I told everyone [at NBC] we were going to get savaged by the critics," he said.

Still, Zucker observed that viewers under age 35--an audience reared on MTV and ESPN's extreme-sports X Games--are more receptive to such programs. As a result, he said, the critics lambasting these shows are not representative of the target audience, either demographically or in their programming tastes.

"They're telling us something," Zucker said of that youthful audience, adding that it smacks of elitism to imply that the major networks should somehow be above providing entertainment that viewers clearly want to see.

"We have to be broadcasters in the broadest sense of that word," he noted.

The boost NBC has enjoyed among younger viewers is evident in breakdowns of ratings this summer compared with 2000. NBC is the only broadcast network to lower its median viewing age, reflecting a higher percentage of viewers under 40 in its audience.

Zucker's appointment, and Ancier's ouster, sent a message about how seriously NBC brass approached the need to experiment with various kinds of programming. As Sassa put it, "We can't just keep hitting down the middle."

In March, NBC Chairman Bob Wright stated the network must preserve its "scripted sensibilities" while bringing the immediacy of "Today" to prime time. "This is his time," he said of Zucker, who in his last job made on-the-fly decisions about what to include in each morning's broadcast.

Moreover, one of Zucker's first acts involved recruiting former VH1 executive Jeff Gaspin, who created "Behind the Music," to join NBC Entertainment--meaning two of the network's top programmers are relative strangers to the insular world of scripted television.

Even without those credentials, Sassa said NBC had to adapt to a shifting marketplace and confront what the response to "Survivor" and its ilk augured for programmers.

"The fact was, we were late," Sassa said, identifying the influx of unscripted programming as "a trend, not a fad."

Other factors have helped pressure networks to explore this arena, from financial incentives (the programs are generally less expensive to produce than scripted shows) to a proliferation of viewing choices that has made viewers less patient with mediocre sitcoms and dramas.

"We can't afford 22 hours of 'The West Wing,' " Sassa noted, citing limitations in regard to cost and the available talent pool.

As for racy new concepts coexisting with traditional franchises, Zucker likened that juxtaposition to "Today," which opens with half an hour of news before giving way to giddier elements later in the broadcast. "It didn't diminish the 'Today' show, nor did it diminish NBC News," he said.

Zucker also stressed that hours being allocated to unscripted programs haven't come at the expense of conventional series (though NBC has eliminated a film slot, dealing a blow to producers of made-for-TV movies). As for writers, producers and actors who resent losing precious shelf space, both Zucker and Sassa point out that keeping viewers tuning in this summer will help promote and launch NBC's established series come fall.

To those accusing the networks of playing to the lowest common denominator--a charge also leveled at CBS' "Big Brother" and Fox's "Temptation Island"--Sassa maintains NBC is broadcasting responsibly and requiring proper safeguards within its stunt-oriented programs, which foster an appearance of risk without putting contestants in serious danger.

"We have decided what we think is appropriate," Sassa noted. "We're not going to speak for other networks, but we feel comfortable with what we're doing."

Beyond questions about taste and safety, unscripted programs seem to require constant one-upmanship in their gravity, with existing concepts fading as even more outrageous permutations arrive on the scene.

"The half-life of these programs is extremely short, and we have no illusions about that," Sassa admitted.

Such short-term thinking, however, runs counter to the foundation of network television, which relies on long-running series. Nowhere is that more true than at NBC, which has renewed "Law & Order" through a 15th season, into 2005, and struck pricey deals that will, at a minimum, keep "Frasier" and "ER" on the network a decade or more.

Given that framework, these alternative formats pose a unique dilemma, since the audience quickly becomes bored and looks for new thrills elsewhere--as evidenced by "Millionaire's" shockingly rapid descent among viewers under 50.

That's just one of the ways young adults are fundamentally redefining the rules by which the broadcast networks operate. According to Zucker, it's those viewers, not NBC's critics, who will be the ultimate arbiters of what appears in prime time.

"There's been a slight generational change in what the under-35 audience expects," Zucker said. "We are the home of quality sitcoms and dramas, and remain so. We will always take a quality drama or a quality sitcom first. . . . But if we don't put on programs that are of interest to this [younger] audience, where are we going to be in five or 10 years?"

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