Networks Seek Low-Cost Alternative to Reality TV By CARLOS MARTINEZ Staff Reporter Reality television was big a year ago. But today, after the tastes of a fickle audience have changed and five primetime network reality shows have been canceled during the past year, programmers are scrambling to find replacements that can be produced just as cheaply and will be as big a hit with viewers. “The whole idea of reality shows was the low cost of producing a sometimes tasteless, but entertaining show,” said Reba Merrill, a Woodland Hills-based media consultant and documentary filmmaker. “Now the trick is to find something that will replace it.” Merrill predicts networks will look to high concept situation comedies featuring unknown (and relatively inexpensive) actors to replace their faltering reality fare. Keith Marder, a spokesman for Burbank-based WB Network, said his network is shopping around for new situation comedies, but is still exploring the viability of new reality programming. “Jamie Kennedy’s new (reality) show is doing well and it shows that reality programming is still strong,” said Marder. Kennedy’s latest show, “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment,” features pranks and stunts, similar to the old “Candid Camera” show. The show’s premiere episode was the WB’s sixth highest rated program the week ending Jan. 14. However, the network canceled the low-rated “Elimidate Deluxe” reality show in November But NBC programming president Jeff Zucker told the Associated Press last week that low-cost comedy and drama shows will likely replace underperforming reality series on network television. Chris Ender, a spokesman for CBS, said comedies will continue to do well on network television long after many reality shows have lost their appeal. Shows like “Survivor,” “Fear Factor” and “Big Brother” may be cheaper to produce than scripted shows that use even second-tier stars in their casts, Ender admitted. But a return to low-cost comedies and dramas are in the works at most networks that are reeling from declining ad revenue in 2001 a year when the inexpensive reality programs must have seemed like a godsend Chris Klein, a Los Angeles-based media consultant, said the major TV networks are sensitive to the high costs of producing programming, but they are even more sensitive to low ratings. “It’s not going to help if you have a cheap show that nobody’s watching,” he said. “I’m sure that we’re going to see a move toward sitcoms and maybe more specials.” Klein estimated that most reality TV episodes cost about half of what he characterized as the average sitcom without high-profile actors and writers (about $1 million per episode). By returning to sitcom series featuring unknowns in fewer episodes per season, networks figure to drastically cut costs. Even sitcoms like Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new comedy, “Watching Ellie,” set to debut on NBC on Feb. 26, will save several million dollars by shooting 16 episodes instead of the usual 22, he said. Joan Giglione, a communications lecturer at Cal State Northridge, said reality shows at first struck a chord with viewers who were enticed by their novelty. “But people get tired of seeing too much reality. They want something that takes them away from everyday stress, and that’s what reality TV doesn’t do,” she said. ABC is scrambling to fill its primetime schedule after it canceled its once high-flying reality series “The Mole” at the same time its once mighty “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” which once ran four nights a week, is now on twice a week and has been consistently losing its time slot. Eric Schotz, whose Encino-based LMNO Productions produces Fox’s “Boot Camp” among others, said reality programming is far from dead. “It’s everywhere. How can it be dead?” he asked. “It’s just that people like to take shots at reality shows.” Schotz’s production company is working on 11 reality-based series, including a new one featuring former “Good Morning America” anchor Joan Lunden and shows for A & E; Network and the Travel Channel. Last season, Schotz’s company produced four reality shows. “The networks are looking at economically feasible programs with some sense of popular mass appeal,” he said, adding that he believes the networks have not completely abandoned reality programming. But after the demise of “Temptation Island,” “The Mole,” “Love Cruise,” “Lost” and “Elimidate Deluxe,” reality has lost much of its luster. Even CBS’s high-powered “Survivor” has seen its numbers fall from a 30-million viewer average last year to about 20 million this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. Mark Burnett, “Survivor” producer, said the reality genre still has “legs” and will likely rebound as improved reality shows make their mark. “People want to be entertained. That’s what any show has to do or it’s not going to last,” he said. ABC, whose “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” continues to falter, has yet to say what it will do with the show or what might replace it in its primetime slots.