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Last Updated:  Friday, 7 March, 2003, 12:30 GMT
'Bitter reality' for TV writers
Maggie Shiels
By Maggie Shiels
in San Francisco

Evan Marriot
Evan Marriot was the star of Joe Millionaire
Reality shows are taking over America's TV networks - but while ordinary members of the public are winning huge prizes or even new partners, TV professionals say they are losing out.

Those who make a living by writing for television are watching the work dry up as networks cancel expensive dramas and sitcoms and instead pack their schedules with reality shows.

Actors and directors say they are in the same boat as Joe Public takes centre stage for no money and sometimes not even as much as fifteen minutes of fame.

Victoria Riskin, president of the 8,500 strong Writers Guild of America, said: "Our members are concerned that the plethora of reality programming is impacting them in terms of job opportunities.

"There is a fair amount of anxiety that these shows are cheap to make and developing new series is too expensive.".

Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild is not happy either.

Its president, Melissa Gilbert, says: "It's a terrible trend. My concern is that once the networks get comfortable with a certain kind of programme, it becomes very tough to make a trend go away. "

Reality shows are cheaper than hits like Friends
Reality TV costs about half as much to produce - about $600,000 per hour - as a typical new drama or sitcom.

On the salary front, there are no whopping wage bills for stars who hold out for $1 million-an-episode salaries like the actors on Friends successfully did early last year.

Reality programming can deliver quick profits as well, which has network bosses salivating over their balance sheets.

Generally speaking, the first run of a high end drama or sitcom operates at a loss because of up-front costs until the programme garners an audience.

Then the more successful it gets, the more it costs.

For example NBC pays Warner Bros $13million per episode of ER, $10million for Friends and $5million for The West Wing.

For reality shows, the situation is different.

'Making money'

"We can order eight episodes of a reality show and break even or even make money right away," explains David Poltrack, executive vice president of research at CBS.

"We don't put them on with a big deficit."

They're well produced, they're cheap, they're ratings weapons
Randy Falco,
NBC group president
Eyeballs are another issue as millions literally tune in to see participants put themselves through all manner of situations just for the cameras.

The final episode of Joe Millionaire is a case in point.

The show centred around a $19,000-a year-construction worker who passed himself off as a millionaire in an effort to find out if women would love him for himself or his bank account.

At the end of the series, over 40 million people watched to see who Evan Marriott - aka Joe Millionaire - picked as his lady love.

That translated into advertising dollars, with Fox Television charging as much as $400,000 for a 30 second spot.

The TV company was unwilling to repeat Joe Millionaire but has changed its mind because of the show's runaway success.

"It's all about ad revenue," says an unabashed Sandy Grushow, Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman.

"When one of these things hits, there's enormous profitability."

Bad timing

Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon as these shows, which test people's talents, endurance or their tolerance for humiliation, filled 13% of prime-time schedules last month.

Survivor was the first big reality hit in the US
The share could be as much as 40% this summer resulting in shorter runs for dramas and sitcoms.

According to the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, comedy is no longer king with the number of shows on the networks sinking steadily from 62 in 1997 to just 35 this season.

Stacie Lipp, who has written for Roseanne and Married with Children, went to pitch an idea to CBS the morning after the first Survivor finale.

"Nobody listened," she recalled. "They were buzzing. It could have been the best sitcom ever and we were doomed."

The appeal is not complicated, maintains NBC group president Randy Falco.

"You can get these reality shows quickly," he said.

"They're well produced. They're cheap. And they've gone beyond summer replacements. They're ratings weapons."

But Writers' Guild president Ms Riskin remains upbeat and believes the reality boom will soon burst.

"Last year the ABC network had a big success with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and put it on four nights in a row," she said.

"It tanked because audiences got over-saturated with it and I am sure that will happen after a while with the Bachelor, The Bachelorette, or Survivor."

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