The state of the world seems especially grim of late, but reality is receding on network television -- even as it grows just a little bit sunnier.
We're talking reality TV, of course, and it would be a mistake to read too much into the notion of receding. Reality -- or "alternative" -- programming holds an utterly secure place at every network. However, perhaps mindful that most of last fall's reality debuts were DOA, schedule makers this season are relying more on scripted shows to fill vacancies: The fall lineup features a grand total of two new reality series, compared with six a year ago.
It's worth noting that those two shows -- "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" and "Three Wishes," both airing on NBC -- promise a gentler version of reality than some of their predecessors have delivered. Even NBC's "Fear Factor," a graybeard of the genre that began its life wreaking torment on contestants, is assembling what its creative team is calling "the season of change."
TV tea-leaf readers are always looking to identify trends, and some observers are calling this a year of kinder reality. Network programmers are generally leery of such labels.
"I just think it's expanding a little with more variety," says Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy. "I think we're moving away from the contest shows that go on week after week and toward shows that begin and end in a single episode. . . . I think we probably have enough shows with back-stabbing at their core."
Nor does Mark Burnett, executive producer of, among many others, "Survivor" and both versions of "The Apprentice" -- Donald Trump's original and Stewart's newcomer -- see a particular shift in the genre.
"I think it's just moving to higher quality," he says. "Let's face it -- after 'Survivor' took TV by storm in a new direction, people rushed to the air with many, many half-baked ideas. I said all along that reality television would be held to the same standard as scripted. . . . It comes down to one thing -- quality."
A lot of the happy-reality talk has been inspired by ABC, whose "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" has been a Top 20 hit, pulling in an average of nearly 14 million viewers a week last season. Ask Andrea Wong, the network's executive vice president for alternative programming, specials and late night, about reality trends, and she'll bring the conversation home to the trend at ABC.
"We've come up in the past couple of years with a brand that works for us," she says. "It's about wish fulfillment, escapism, strong emotional journeys, changing lives for the better."
That would seem to position "Extreme Makeover" -- disadvantaged family gets fabulous new custom-made house, courtesy of network elves and assorted volunteers -- as the emblematic ABC reality show.
"I think 'Dancing With the Stars' " -- the biggest hit of the past summer and, the network hopes, a long-term franchise -- "is also an emblematic show for us," Wong counters. "It's really positive and good clean fun and escapist. I think that's a real natural evolution for us."
ABC has plenty more in the pipeline for mid-season -- another edition of "Dancing," another "Bachelor," a Simon Cowell project seeking to identify the next great invention. And then there's "Miracle Workers," which sounds like a perfect ABC reality show: Each week staffers locate someone desperately in need of heavy-duty, highly expensive surgery and make it happen.
Of the network programmers interviewed, Wong was the only one to speak in terms of a network brand or imprint. But you can't copyright a mind-set, and ABC's competitors have taken note of its success.
Enter "Three Wishes," which is expected to find success of its own Friday nights on NBC.
The title says it all, just about: Gospel singer Amy Grant and a team of worker bees invade a different small town every week. They set up a tent and listen to various townspeople's hopes, dreams and troubles. Three wishes are chosen, and by show's end, they've been fulfilled.
If that sounds like "Extreme Makeover" by way of "Queen for a Day," it more or less is. Executive producer Andrew Glassman ("Average Joe") has heard it all before.
"The obvious question is, is this a takeoff on 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition'?" he says. "That's a really great show. . . . You have to give them credit for proving that there's a market for happy endings. But that said, I think our show is going to have its own voice. . . . It's easy to say it's all about feel-good, but there's a lot of comedy."
The impetus for the show, he says, predates "Makeover."
"I was a journalist for a long time," he says, "and had an idea for a show where journalists who encounter stories of this kind take it one more step." When NBC came looking for an answer to "Makeover," he was ready.
The fall's other new reality show sports a particularly high profile -- "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart." With Trump's version still going, executive producer Burnett is doubling his franchise's airtime. Not, we're assured, that the shows will be interchangeable.
"The difference in tone is similar to the difference in tone between 'CSI: Miami' and 'CSI: New York,' " Burnett says. The original "is dictated by Trump's personality in the rough-and-tumble world of New York real estate. Martha, on the other hand, is in an artistic business. . . . Both people's personalities are reflective of their industries. . . . The shows mirror who they are."
So there will be a distinction. Now we can watch Trump snarling "You're fired!" at his humiliated rejects while Martha dismisses hers in a nurturing, artistic manner. Still, this is two ongoing "Apprentices." Is somebody pushing his luck?
Burnett doesn't believe so, although "I think I'd have to think very seriously about doing a third. . . . But two, especially two so-different hosts . . ." Suffice it to say, he's confident.
He is, however, less sanguine about some of NBC's scheduling. Stewart's show airs in a relatively cozy 8 p.m. Wednesday slot. But Trump's is returning to its 9 p.m. Thursday position, again opposite CBS's "CSI" juggernaut. The producer isn't complaining about that, but his lead-ins, this season as last, are "Joey," a sitcom that's never really caught on, and the fading "Will & Grace." The "CSI" lead-in, meanwhile, is Burnett's own "Survivor," another megahit.
It's enough to make a producer unhappy.
"Yeah," he says heartily. "Honest answer. But I don't run the network." He then offers up one of the vagaries of reality programming: "I'm sort of my own lead-in." This, he says, is because audience tracking data show that a certain percentage of reality viewers will consistently choose a reality show over a scripted one -- meaning that a share of the "Survivor" audience is expected to switch channels and watch Trump.
Still, he muses, "it's sort of a tough spot."
And speaking of tough spots: On an episode of "Fear Factor" that aired recently in syndication, contestants in pursuit of a $50,000 prize began their quest by bobbing for plastic rings in a vat containing a sickening sea of horse blood. The winners of that round were directed to chew up and swallow a clutch of moistly bloated white caterpillars. Then each aspirant had to crawl into a dark, claustrophobic grotto and try to round up a mess of dead skunks that had been deposited there.
That was an early installment. Executive producer Matt Kunitz, hard at work on the show's sixth season (it will probably air after the first of the year, NBC's Gaspin says), listens to the account and says brightly, "It often amazes me that nobody complains."
In fact, Kunitz and his team have been moving the show in somewhat different directions. "We don't want to be 'The Price Is Right' -- we don't want to be doing the same thing over and over again," he says. The show's stunt team has been replaced by the team from the movie "The Matrix," he says, meaning contestants can expect more exciting and telegenic challenges. And a new feature called "Home Invasion" at the close of every episode will find host Joe Rogan knocking on the door of an American home and challenging the occupants to perform a "Fear Factor" stunt right in the front yard. So far, Kunitz says, nobody's turned him down.
"We've never taken ourselves too seriously," he concludes. "I would say that perhaps we did get a little too gross, and we're shifting. . . . You can only eat so many gross items."
Of all the major networks, only CBS has kept last September's reality lineup intact: "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" have been among the reliably bright spots on the first-place network's schedule, but the new fare is all scripted. (CBS did air a couple of midseason reality flops last season, "Wickedly Perfect" and "The Will"; the latter was pulled after a single episode.)
The biggest contributor to last fall's glut of new reality shows was Fox, which offered up fully half of the crop: Remember "The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," "The Next Great Champ" and "The Partner"? (You might have a dim recollection of the first two -- they at least saw the light of day before expiring -- but "The Partner" never aired.)
This year the network has seven new series, all of them scripted.
Fall programming at Fox is particularly dicey because the network airs all of the baseball playoffs, including the World Series. That draws good numbers and brings in lots of money, but it creates problems for the entertainment side: If a promising new series debuts in September, it's going to be preempted when the playoffs begin, which threatens to kill the show's momentum.
"Last year was the fourth or fifth attempt to get fall launched till 'American Idol' comes in January," says Mike Darnell, Fox's executive vice president for alternative programming and specials. "To be honest, the reality programming we had on last year was considered filler until we could get to the good stuff. It was meant to hopefully get us to January and/or to November. To get past baseball. But -- didn't work very well."
Not that Fox has lost faith in reality.
" 'Idol' is still the driving force of the network," Darnell says. No surprise there: A 30-second commercial on the show's Wednesday edition will go for an average price of $705,000 this season, according to the trade publication AdWeek. It's believed to be a record for a prime-time series.
"And we've ordered backup episodes of 'Trading Spouses' and 'Nanny 911,' " Darnell continues, "because they were both successes for us."
Most new shows fail, he points out. Still, "when you look at reality compared to drama and comedy, it's still a better ratio of successes -- but it's catching up. With quantity comes failure."
Darnell and his counterparts have long known the truth of that, and often proved it. For them the search goes on for the Next Great Concept.
"People like what they like," he says. "It's not that their tastes shift. It's just finding something new that they like."