'Reality' shows seen as a quick fix

Times Staff Writer

Despite the instant high ratings of several unscripted shows that debuted last week, executives of the WB told a gathering of national television writers over the weekend that the genre has only short-term benefits and they would not allow such shows to become a major component of its programming.

"It is a short-term gain and a long-term problem," Jordan Levin, entertainment president of the WB, told members of the Television Critics Assn. during its winter summit to sample midseason TV fare.

The WB last week launched "The Surreal Life," about a group of dissimilar celebrities assigned to live together, and "High School Reunion," about a reunion of twentysomethings.

Those shows, along with Fox's new "Joe Millionaire" and the debut of ABC's "The Bachelorette," attracted large audiences. The popularity of unscripted shows also blossomed last season with Fox's "American Idol," CBS' "Survivor," NBC's "Fear Factor" and other series.

Levin said that unscripted shows allow prime-time schedules to stay fresh -- and that their effect on ratings is very seductive. "There's no doubt that the mood within the network over the numbers from 'High School Reunion' and 'Surreal Life' has approached a level of giddiness."

But he said that executives were keeping perspective on the series' success.

"You have to be really careful with reality programming because it can ... start to force you into a place where you're juggling your schedule to satisfy a very short-term fix," he said. "It's something that will always be support programming for us. It will never overtake the network. Our goal is to maintain the quality of our scripted programming."

Still, two of the network's upcoming shows fall squarely into the unscripted category. Steve Harvey, the star of "The Steve Harvey Show," which ended a six-year run on the WB last year, will return to the network to host a variety/talk show in which he will interact with "everyday people with extraordinary and humorous gifts."

Scheduled for summer is "North Shore," which will follow seven professional surfers who will live together in a beach house in Hawaii while competing against each other in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.

Levin also addressed the cancellation of "Birds of Prey," a superhero drama that was dropped after only a few airings. The series has been the subject of a campaign by its fans who want to revive it.

He called the demise of "Birds of Prey" "probably the biggest disappointment I think we've had in eight years." Levin said, "It comes down to who's writing the show, and we really could not find someone who could write that show.... We usually are able to make good marriages between first-time writers and experienced writers, and this was a case where we just couldn't make that marriage."

In a separate presentation on the fortunes of UPN, CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves, who oversees UPN, said he is optimistic that the struggling network, which has experienced low ratings this season, will reverse that trend.

Moonves and UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff announced an ambitious development slate with major talent, which they said would be instrumental in bringing viewers and stability to the network.

Among the projects in development are a comedy from Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, based on their relationship with his ex-wife and mother of his first child, and a drama from Mel Gibson similar to "The Sting" that would feature elaborate scams. Rapper Eve is also developing a comedy set in the fashion world and in which she would star.

The executives also said the future of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" remained in question with the expected departure of star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Moonves added that Gellar may return for the season, or for only a few episodes.

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