REMEMBER when they used to gobble horse innards and other delicacies on "Fear Factor"?
Ah, 'twas prime time's golden age.
Blame it on the writers strike, but network TV is rushing to embrace cheap and sponsor-friendly unscripted programming that makes gross-out contests look like "St. Elsewhere." And leading the way is NBC, the network that for two decades staked its reputation on upscale, high-quality shows such as "ER" and "Law & Order."
As that halcyon era fades away, it's being replaced by a tin age of high-concept, lowest-common-denominator stuff: "American Gladiators," "Deal or No Deal," "Celebrity Apprentice," "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad" and the game show "Amnesia." These shows are typically rife with product tie-ins and placements, a trend that gleeful advertisers say is sure to grow. During the May sweep, NBC will air a reality special, "America's Favorite Mom," that was actually created and will be overseen by Los Angeles-based flower purveyor Teleflora.
Is it a show? An infomercial? A "content wrap"? Tune in and find out!
Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, insists there's no cause for concern. "We are not putting more reality on" permanently, Silverman wrote me in an e-mail. "It's just a strike-informed reality." He emphasized that the network continues to pursue scripted projects, such as "Kath and Kim," with Molly Shannon and Selma Blair, an adaptation of the scabrous Australian hit.
Others are not so sure of NBC's direction. Shari Anne Brill, analyst at ad firm Carat, dubs what's happening at NBC a "descent from class to crass." And it's hard to argue when much of the programming looks more fit for a second-tier cable network than the onetime No. 1 broadcast powerhouse.
In fairness, NBC is hardly the only network chasing cheapo reality TV these days. As strike doldrums seized the industry last month, CBS executives grew either bored or anxious enough to order up something called "America's Top Dog." Given that it's CBS, maybe they're angling for a spinoff starring crime-solving canines.
NBC still has plenty of critically acclaimed, upscale shows. In fact, "The Office," "30 Rock," "Friday Night Lights" and "Scrubs" are the top 4 network shows with the highest proportion of young viewers in households with more than $100,000 in annual income, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.
But those series -- all of them scripted, in case anyone failed to notice, and all except "Scrubs" developed and put on the air by former top programmer Kevin Reilly, whom NBC fired last year -- account for just 2 1/2 hours a week, or about 11% of NBC's schedule. Not quite enough to cover for down-market shows such as "Deal or No Deal," "Gladiators" and "1 vs. 100."
Nor does recent history give much cause for hope that quality will reign again once the writers trot back to work. "Gladiators" and "My Dad" were ordered more than a month before the strike started in November, and both bear the imprimatur of Reveille, Silverman's production company, which he's in the midst of selling. (NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and "The Office" are also Reveille shows.)
Silverman argues that it's misleading to look just at the demographics of shows such as "Gladiators." Because such programs deliver much larger audiences than, say, "Friday Night Lights," an advertiser will still end up getting the desired number of high-income viewers, at least in absolute terms. (Although it should be noted that "Gladiators' " ratings have tumbled every week since its Jan. 6 premiere, when it looked like a hit.) And reality programs aren't necessarily a synonym for "pandering crud." Well, not always.
"Look at 'Apprentice,' which is the most upscale reality show on TV," Silverman wrote. (It's ranked No. 7 on the high-income-viewer list this season.)
Yet there's no question that the tilt of NBC's programming is shifting, and it's important to understand what's driving the change. Because if the network's bets pay off, Hulk Hogan may soon look like the leading edge of a wave, rather than just a "strike-informed" transitional figure.
Twenty-five years ago, NBC boss Grant Tinker ushered in a programming renaissance when he urged executives: "First be best, then be first." The result? A sterling roster of hits, many shepherded by Tinker's top lieutenant Brandon Tartikoff, which over the years included "Hill Street Blues," "The Cosby Show," "Cheers," "L.A. Law," "Seinfeld," "Friends" and more.
But that was then. Last week, at a programming convention in Las Vegas, Silverman's boss, NBC Universal President and Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, gave an ominous-sounding speech about the future of the television business. This address was not about being best or first. Its title? "A Time for Change."
The times, Zucker said, demand "a re-engineering of our businesses from top to bottom. . . . We've needed to this for quite a few years now, but there was no real sense of urgency behind it."
According to Zucker, the strike provided that sense of urgency. The work stoppage is, he said, like a forest fire that deposits fertilizing "new ash" in its destructive wake. Among the bad things consumed in the blaze, Zucker said, were costly "pilots that will never see the light of day" and wasteful producer deals "that rarely have a payoff."
Now, Zucker said, networks should take this opportunity to "transform the cost structure of their business" -- which is suit-speak for, "Make stuff cheaper."
"They can develop shows that will work not just in the U.S. but worldwide," he said. Executives should also embrace distribution over the Internet, develop new ad opportunities and find ways to make money off shows whose ratings would have seemed unacceptably low even a few seasons ago.
In other words, the old legacy-network horse race is closed, out of business. It no longer matters who's first or who has the "best" shows, if such a thing can be definitively determined. If people want quality shows on demand, that's what DVDs are for.
What matters now, at least according to Zucker and other tub-thumpers for industry change, is to leverage as many outlets as possible -- broadcast, cable, Internet -- and to accumulate all those sliced-and-diced audiences into a series of potential ad ploys, sponsorships and placements that can complement the typical 30-second commercial.
So the network doesn't just sell Teleflora some ad time. It listens to a pitch from the company, just as it would from a writer-producer. The advertiser isn't just a sponsor, it's a "content partner." And voila! The glory that is "America's Favorite Mom."
It's a situation somewhat analogous to the sponsor-driven early days of commercial TV, though here's guessing that "Texaco Star Theater," the 1950s NBC stamping ground of Milton Berle, stands a better chance of being remembered than "America's Favorite Mom." After all, Texaco's showcase wasn't just about selling more gas.
But then, maybe we're slipping back into retrograde thinking here. We must follow the Zucker plan and look toward the future. We have to stop staring at things lost in the fire.