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Changing reality TV

Last year's ratings sensations have cooled since Sept. 11, and viewers and producers are more aware of the line between edgy and offensive.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2002

Last year's ratings sensations have cooled since Sept. 11, and viewers and producers are more aware of the line between edgy and offensive.

His flagship show, CBS reality TV trendsetter Survivor, has plunged from white-hot cultural phenomenon to just another Top 10 series in less than a year. And he's debuting a military-centered reality show this month, as U.S. armed forces risk their lives for real in Afghanistan.

Still, reality TV pioneer Mark Burnett remains unflappably confident -- if a bit distracted -- while calling from the location of Survivor 4 near Tahiti.

Ask if Sept. 11 and subsequent events have made the show irrelevant, and he'll note that 20-million pairs of eyeballs still tune in every week.

Speculate that cancellations or sagging ratings for eight reality shows last fall indicate the genre's death, and he'll laughingly suggest people didn't stop watching TV dramas when The Fugitive got canceled.

But suggest that viewers inundated with war news might flinch at the sight of 24 military-type guys playing "war games" such as rescuing a hostage and blowing up a tank, and this former British paratrooper gets serious.

"This war," Burnett said, "is perfect timing for Combat Missions," his new USA Network series, in which four teams of six non-active military and/or law enforcement guys try to complete their "missions" before the others. (Original Survivor curmudgeon and retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch is the crusty camp commander.)

"This is the first exclusively special operations war," the producer adds. "Our show was only for special operations troops . . . (so) people have a chance to meet and get to know these people for real . . . see them do everything from taking down a drug lord to rescuing someone. From the beginning, everyone understood, this was a really pro-military, patriotic show."

Burnett's confidence notwithstanding, reality TV -- unscripted shows that place average people in contrived situations to produce real emotion -- has hardly been a sure bet in Hollywood recently.

Since September, a number of shows have been canceled or found little viewer interest: Temptation Island 2 (floundering), Elimidate Deluxe (canceled), Love Cruise (unnoticed), Lost (pre-empted and ignored), The Mole 2 (yanked off air in mid play), The Amazing Race (overshadowed) and The Runner (never made).

Some shows, such as Lost, The Amazing Race and The Mole 2, foundered in the rush of news coverage, cultural shock and endless pre-emptions that followed September's terrorist attacks.

Others, such as Elimidate Deluxe and Love Cruise, were just awful series that likely would have tanked under any circumstances.

Now, as 2002 brings even more more reality shows to viewers, critics can't help wondering (and perhaps, hoping): Will recent history repeat itself?

"Anything which is entertaining and well-produced can entertain an audience," said Burnett, shrugging off notions that changed sensibilities will affect the Jan. 16 premiere of Combat Missions. "Because of Survivor's success, people thought they could throw anything on the air and get ratings. They were wrong."

Freelance journalist and author Peter Lance has a different view. Since CBS put the kibosh on a book Lance had planned to write with Survivor's first winner, Richard Hatch, the California writer has dedicated himself to unmasking the manipulations behind reality TV raising questions about producers' actions on Survivor and UPN's little-seen Manhunt series.

Lance hasn't pursued any new reality TV stories since October, reasoning that viewer fascination with such shows vanished along with its interest in lightweight news subjects such as Gary Condit and Anne Heche.

"Americans went through a 10-year fraternity haze -- we were fascinated with celebrities," said Lance, now mulling a book proposal about the lack of truth in all TV programming -- from Jerry Springer to Dateline NBC.

"The whole reality TV thing was sparked by the desire of average people to become celebrities overnight," he added. "But why watch middle class Americans retching over eating bugs when people are dying in the streets of New York?"

Don't tell that to Fear Factor host Joe Rogan. "Since Sept. 11, I think (Hollywood) went over the top (in toning down entertainment) . . . they overreacted and tried to Nerf the world."

Rogan's Fear Factor -- NBC's exploitative grab for young viewers last summer -- returned after Sept. 11 with a celebrity special that established rapper Coolio as a tough competitor and proved its concept still had life in a postattack world.

This week, the show takes over one of the prime time slots previously held by reality TV companion Weakest Link, airing at 8 p.m. Mondays through January. Like previous noncelebrity versions aired this summer, the next few episodes of Fear Factor center on average contestants trying to complete three stunts that play to their worst fears.

Competitors this evening will walk on an airplane wing 4,000 feet up, stick their face into a vat full of snakes to pull out plums with their mouths and drive a stunt car off the edge of a parking garage. The winner walks off with $50,000.

It's a predictable formula -- two eyepopping stunts and one gross display per episode -- yet oddly compelling.

And even as producers rave about upcoming stunts -- including one requiring contestants to face a crowd of 200 people in the nude, naughty bits blurred for the camera -- Rogan defends his show as harmless entertainment.

"It's total short attention span theater . . . a manufactured danger that I just don't think is inappropriate, (even) at a time of war," said the host, weeks before NBC would announce its next celebrity Fear Factor -- featuring Playboy Playmates! -- scheduled during Super Bowl halftime, which airs on another network.

The only thing that might kill a reality show quicker than a terrorist attack, it seems, is repetition.

ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which helped kick off the modern reality phenomenon with Survivor two years ago, is in trouble -- seen as passe by young viewers who burnt out on the game show when it aired four times weekly last TV season.

So why is Millionaire's biggest direct competitor, NBC's Weakest Link, heading into syndication -- where it will play five times a week?

"When you've got something that's really good, it doesn't matter what the climate is," said George Gray, the former standup comic chosen to fill Anne Robinson's acerbic shoes on the syndicated Weakest Link (it debuts two half-hour episodes weekdays at 4 p.m. today on WTSP-Ch. 10).

"We're in everybody's homes . . . sometimes we're on twice a day . . . so we have to be accessible," he said of the quiz show, which features contestants voting one of their number off after each round of questions. "Maybe we've got to twist a few arms to get people to (sample) it . . . but once they do, it's over."

The daytime syndicated show, sold to individual TV stations in each market instead of airing on a network, is a gamble for NBC, which has seen ratings slide for the prime-time version since its debut. But Weakest Link could be a godsend for stations like WTSP, which need strong lead-in programs for their local 5 p.m. newscasts.

Gray, a standup comedian and former host of the Learning Channel's Junkyard Wars, comes off as a kinder, gentler Link host -- chummy and folksy in a way Robinson would never attempt. It helps that he's helming a quicker-paced half-hour version (Robinson's lasts an hour).

"Anne can say stuff like (in stuffy British voice) "Whose intellectual quotient has insufficient merit to warrant more attention?' " said Gray, who nevertheless has retained Robinson's signature line: "You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye."

"I'm more likely to say, "Who is the Tito of this Jackson Five?' " the host added. "With me, it's more like a Dean Martin roast than anything."

And after taping more than 50 shows, Gray's got a few words of advice for potential contestants. "The best thing people can do is fly under the radar -- this ain't Jeopardy, pal," he added, laughing. "You've got to be smart enough not to have people bothered by your stupidity, but if they fear you because you're too intelligent, you're out of there. So you wind up with shy, unassuming people who were C students in school."

If the reality genre has changed at all in recent months, it may be that producers are warier of the line between edgy entertainment and offending viewers.

Ghen Maynard, vice president of alternative programming for CBS, says producers pitching reality TV series ideas now "want to do shows with all these happy people," cutting down on the really offensive suggestions.

"I remember one: Convict Island," he said. "Take a bunch of convicts and other people hunt them down. The convict who lasted the longest would get a prize for his former victims and his own family. I don't get as much of that kind of stuff anymore."

Reality TV is still strong at CBS; despite disappointing ratings for the global competition The Amazing Race, the network has ordered a second version. CBS also has committed to at least two more Survivors and may present a Big Brother 3 this summer.

And its newest reality concept, American Fighter Pilots, will embrace the times by focusing on the lives of pilot trainees in segments mostly filmed before Sept. 11 (Maynard won't say whether participants are involved in the current war on terrorism or fighting in Afghanistan).

"We signed this show after Sept. 11," said the executive of Fighter Pilots, due to debut later this season. "We're showing ordinary people, like you and me, how they go through this process. We see what they had to go through to become these heroes."

And that seems to be the face of reality TV in 2002 -- mostly business as usual, with nods to patriotic themes and a dash of sensitivity.

Far from killing the genre, the ugly intrusion of homeland terrorism may have pushed reality from cultural phenomenon to just another form of escapist television.

"As long as there's not another disruption, I think people will go back to their regular routines, and the shows will rebound," said Warner Walker, a New Mexico accountant who runs the reality TV-focused Web site "It may mean we don't see 50 new (reality) shows coming out every year. But the good ones will stick around for years."

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