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Keeping it real

TV networks' fortunes were made and broken by reality shows last month. We try to figure out what the next (temporary) kingmaker will be.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

Now that the dust has settled from February's sweeps ratings period, one winner stands triumphant.

Reality television.

That's because the genre finally emerged as a bona fide, enduring ratings magnet, helping TV's most troubled networks reclaim their place at the industry table through a potent mix of storytelling, exploitative situations and, yes, humiliation.

Look at the numbers: For the first time in its 16 years, Fox emerged as the nation's top network among viewers age 18 to 49 in February, a victory fueled by the blockbuster reality series Joe Millionaire (40-million viewers for its Feb. 17 finale) and American Idol. A year ago, without either series, Fox placed fourth in that demographic, which is key for advertisers.

Similarly, ABC has used reality to avoid its perennial massacre on Wednesday and Thursday nights, jettisoning scripted series for shows such as The Bachelorette, I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here, Profiles From the Front Line and Are You Hot?

"We're approaching the end of perhaps the craziest sweeps in the history of show business," said Les Moonves, CBS Television president and CEO, on Monday. "Reality has proved to be crack cocaine. It's a quick fix."

Of course, executives at Fox -- who announced Wednesday that they've figured out how to do another edition of Joe Millionaire -- resisted the idea that their success came entirely from reality shows.

"We're using all of our quality programming to win this sweep," said Gail Berman, Fox entertainment president, on Wednesday, minutes after noting that Idol, which airs Tuesday and Wednesday, has also juiced ratings for 24, That '70s Show and The Bernie Mac Show.

Um, right. Regardless, this critic has developed a handy scorecard for predicting reality TV success based on the three key ingredients mentioned above: storytelling, exploitation and humiliation.

Let's see how the next four shows stand up.

The Anna Nicole Show/The Michael Essany Show

The debut: Anna kicks off with a live episode at 10 tonight on the E! network. Essany bows next at 10:30.

The concept: Smith rips off ABC and Fox's magic by devoting the second season of her reality show train wreck to finding a mate, aided by none other than Joe Millionaire butler Paul Hogan (in a ripoff hat trick, suitors take lie detector tests, as on NBC's Meet My Folks). And in case last year's edited shows weren't painful enough, this season unfolds live.

Essany is a college student in Valparaiso, Ind., who hosts a Tonight Show-inspired talk show on cable access from his parents' living room. Even before E! came calling, he had snagged stars such as Kevin Bacon as guests. Tonight he welcomes Destiny's Child vocalist Kelly Rowland while E!'s cameras document the madness.

Anna's score (scale of 0 to 5): Storytelling, 0. (Remember when she mispronounced cabana?) Exploitation, 4. (At times last year, she seemed seriously medicated.) Humiliation, 3. (Only because she doesn't seem to understand that she's being exploited.)

Essany's score: Story, 4. (Who doesn't love an underdog?) Exploitation, 1. (He's shown doing what he's been doing for years.) Humiliation, 1. (What's humiliating about hanging with Kelly Rowland?)

With a score of 7 to Essany's 6, Anna seems poised to do better.

Married by America

The debut: A two-hour episode airs at 8 p.m. Monday, with another hourlong show at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Fox (WTVT-Ch. 13).

The concept: Fox takes two men and two women and allows America to play matchmaker, providing each with five potential mates who meet their family and friends. The public eventually chooses who will join each participant "on a journey toward matrimony," according to a Fox press release.

The score: Storytelling, 2. (We've seen this stuff on The Bachelor and Meet My Folks.) Exploitation, 5. (Who is desperate enough to marry a perfect stranger chosen by people who watch reality TV?) Humiliation, 4. (Expect these unions to fade faster than the Joe Millionaire couple.)

With a total 11 of 15 possible, Married looks like a contender.

The Family

The debut: 10 p.m. Tuesday on ABC (WFTS-Ch. 28).

The concept: The network brings 10 members of a mostly working class family from New York, New Jersey and Boston to a 40-acre estate in Palm Beach to compete for a $1-million prize. The twist: The prize is bestowed by a board of trustees, which is (unbeknownst to the contestants) made up of the household staff. Freeze-dried thespian George Hamilton is the overly scripted host.

The score: Storytelling, 3. (Family friction gets old after a while.) Exploitation, 5. (The family, unused to luxury, is portrayed like a real-life version of The Sopranos, argumentative and unsophisticated.) Humiliation, 4. (Would you like your family arguments played out on national TV?)

With a score of 12, this may be the most successful series yet.

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