New York When television networks began jumping gleefully into the reality pool, NBC was content to lie back, playing it cool. Maybe its programmers preferred a nice game of golf.
Now that it's perceived there's a treasure lying at the bottom of the pool, that decision has come back to haunt NBC's entertainment team, Scott Sassa and Garth Ancier.
Their corporate bosses have been barking at them for not chasing after ideas for reality programming. Every week that "Survivor" pulls big audiences for CBS tightens their collars just a little.
The pool is getting mighty crowded now with everyone thrashing about.
"Nobody wants to be left out," said Bruce Nash, one of Hollywood's top reality show producers. "'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' was seen as something of a fluke, but 'Survivor' proved that reality could work. When 'Survivor' hit, the networks' appetite for these kinds of shows grew overnight and just became insatiable."
Expect a flood of these new shows on the air during the next few months, including:
- "The Mole," a game where a group of people try to complete a series of tasks. The hitch is that one of them is trying to subvert the process, and no one knows who "the mole" is.
- "Master Game," a game show that brings back the unpleasant experience of cramming for college finals. Contestants study for a series of tests over several days, battling fatigue.
- "The Runner" and "Wanted," both based on the idea of pursuit. In "The Runner," an idea developed by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, a person is set loose somewhere in the country and it's up to TV viewers to find him, while "Wanted" sets a pack of former bounty hunters after a series of contestants.
- "Krypton Factor," a game that tests quick-thinking and mental agility.
- "I Want a Divorce," a forum like "Divorce Court," where a real-life divorcing couple compete against each other for their own property. Fortunately, kids aren't included.
And those are just on ABC and Fox. CBS isn't talking about its future plans, but with "Big Brother" on five times a week over the next three months and a second "Survivor" series scheduled for the winter, it is already busy.
NBC is trying quickly to catch up. The network is reportedly negotiating to import a Dutch show, "Chains of Love," in which a woman is chained to four men and must let go one man a day until she's left with her dream date.
After two years in which a rival network made a big splash with original programming during the repeat season -- ABC last August with "Millionaire" and CBS now with "Survivor" -- NBC has assigned a staff and resources just to develop summer and alternative programming, spokeswoman Shirley Powell said.
The network has essentially taken this summer off. The pickings are so slim that NBC is airing a few episodes of a new fall series scheduled to run on its little-watched sister network, Pax TV.
Adding to the pressure on Sassa and Ancier is the general sense that NBC's new fall shows are weak, potentially squandering the promotional platform that several weeks of prime-time Olympics coverage will provide.
NBC has fallen behind in the reality game because "we made our traditional programming -- dramas and comedies -- that ran during the season our top priority," Powell said.
One analyst believes that despite the criticism, NBC had its priorities right. Advertisers still don't value reality shows as highly as hit comedies or dramas, said Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of the media buying firm Schulman Advanswers NY. And chances are there will be far more failures than successes in the upcoming flood of shows, he said.
"They just have to get out of the summer and they'll be fine," DeCabia said. "This storm will blow over."