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The reality of summer TV

Unscripted shows aren't dying as fast as you think. They're still the cheapest way for networks to get new programming and draw their ideal audience over the next three months.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published June 1, 2003

Let's say you're a network TV executive - horns, pitchfork, cloven hooves, pointy tail, forked tongue and all. And you need a way to appear as if you're bringing new series to the table without actually paying big money for the next ER or CSI.

Reality TV to the rescue.

Despite the spectacular failure of some reality shows during the regular TV season - insert preferred Are You Hot? joke here - the networks have learned that reality shows are the cheapest way to provide new programming in summer and attract young viewers to whom they can hype their new fall series.

Already, NBC has welcomed two reality shows to its schedule: Fame, an American Idol-style talent show dredged from the ashes of the old drama series (complete with former star and choreographer Debbie Allen as a sort of anti-Paula Abdul), and Dog Eat Dog, the latest edition of its stunt game show, hosted by ex-Baywatch babe Brooke Burns.

A deluge of similar shows is in the works, from Idol star Simon Cowell's dating series for CBS, Cupid, to Thursday's return of the The Amazing Race and a kiddie-size version of Idol dubbed - what else? - American Juniors.

Here's a quick handicap of what's hot and what's not among the new summer series coming your way over the next two weeks. Perhaps thinking of it as the TV industry's version of American Gladiators will make the bad stuff easier to swallow.

Crime and Punishment, debuts at 10 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8.

The return of the NBC series that takes real prosecutions and jams them into Law & Order's highly successful format. Forget about seeing jury deliberations, the work of the defense counsel or the perspective of the accused. This show makes heroes of the prosecutors and martyrs of the victims. To ensure that viewer sympathy stays low, the first two episodes feature an abusive husband who killed his wife's brother and a man accused of molesting at least six children. Guess how their trials wind up?

Odds for success: 2 to 1. This series did well in its first run last year, despite competition from similar programs on Court TV, TLC, Discovery Channel and just about every other cable outlet.

Faking It, debuts at 8 tonight on BBC America.

Can a ballet dancer become a professional wrestler? Can a guy who flips burgers for a living transform himself into a gourmet chef? (More important, should he be allowed to try?) The BBC answers these questions - proving why so many American producers are ripping off the Brits' ideas - with this inspired show, which allows people four weeks to learn a different profession. (TLC aired its version of Faking It in March.) What do they get if they fool the panel of judges convened to detect whether they're real or fake? Judging by the results of the ballet dancer's work, success brings a hearty handshake and spare footage from their training sure to provoke pangs of embarrassment for years to come.

Odds: 5 to 1. Seen locally only on digital cable systems and satellite TV, this series just isn't sordid enough for a viewership weaned on The Bachelor and Farrelly brothers movies.

For Love or Money, debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on WFLA.

Remember Joe Millionaire? NBC certainly does, crafting a series that plays like its mirror image: sorta-good-looking doofus picks a squeeze from 15 women competing for his affections. The switch here: This time, the doofus guy is the one without a clue, and the women are told that the winning lady gets a shot a $1-million. The added twist: She'll have to choose between her bachelor's love or $1-million. Given that Evan "Joe Millionaire" Marriott looked like he was hitting on other women even as he picked the winner of his contest, I think we know which way this deliberation will go.

Odds: 3 to 1. It's less creepy than Mr. Personality but not nearly as convincing as The Bachelor.

American Juniors, debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WTVT-Ch. 13.

Inspired by the blockbuster success of American Idol and Star Search's uncanny knack for finding children more talented than their adult counterparts, the brilliant minds at Fox have cloned a kiddie version of their impossibly successful talent show. Because even throngs of reality TV addicts might balk at a Simon Cowell clone dressing down an 8-year-old - "I'm sorry, but Barney could have rendered that song better!" - this series will instead embarrass the parents, who will be revealed as the scenery-chewing backstage terrors we all suspect them to be. Oh yeah, the winners will form a five-member singing group to record a million-selling record they won't get paid enough for.

Odds: Even money. At this point, you could slap the American Idol brand on a Shelley Long sitcom and people would watch it. Seriously.

Meet My Folks, debuts at 10 p.m. June 9 on WFLA.

Like the meet-my-parents episode of The Bachelor staged over and over, this dating show takes one funny gag from Ben Stiller's film Meet the Parents and stretches it into an entire series.

Odds: 5 to 1. In a world where even Roseanne can star in a reality show, there's no telling what people might watch.

Last Comic Standing: The Search for the Funniest Person in America, debuts at 9 p.m. June 10 on WFLA.

Take an inconsistent standup comic with a stalled career (host Jay Mohr) and add a bunch of frustrated, unknown comedians who probably deserve their obscure status. Blend them in a contest that places the 10 finalists in a single house as they compete for a talent deal with NBC. I'm not sure what you get, but odds are, it won't be great television.

Odds: 10 to 1. Star Search has proven how painful watching bad comics can be.

The Osbournes, debuts at 10:30 p.m. June 10 on MTV.

Jack's in rehab, and the show's audience has largely moved on to a prank series hosted by one of the guys from Dude, Where's My Car? Still, MTV paid rock star Ozzy Osbourne and his family big bucks for this, likely the final season of the reality show documenting their status as a living (bleeping) sitcom.

Odds: 20 to 1. Who knew the joke would get stale so quickly?

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 10:05:15]


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