Even in Hollywood, reality never seemed quite this bizarre.

Outfoxing saboteurs, dodging advances from g-strung beauties and performing physical feats of daring and endurance may bear little resemblance to real life for most, but then most don't have to sell millions of dollars in advertising each week.

With the new year upon us, network executives are gearing up to air a fresh slate of so-called "reality" shows that promise to raise eyebrows and perhaps ratings by offering television audiences a voyeur's view into the sweat, blood and tears of people willing to do just about anything for cold, hard cash.

The demand for new shows has producers going to great lengths to find themes that are wackier and more compelling than anything their competitors have come up with.

"It's become a matter of 'can you top this,' but only the good ones will work," said Brad Turell, executive vice president of communications for The WB Television Network. "If you know that this genre can hit a grand slam, like "Survivor" did, than you have to be in this genre."

American audiences will soon be asked to follow along as unmarried couples test their commitment (for money) against challenges posed by teams of semi-professional seducers in tropical Belize ("Temptation Island," Fox). In addition, contestants will compete in challenges (for money) as a spy in their midst seeks to trip them up ("The Mole," ABC), and beefy wrestler types with laser guns will chase people around the Hawaiian islands for thrills (and money) ("Manhunt," UPN).

If 2000 was the summer of "Survivor," then 2001 is shaping up as the year of the "Survivor" wannabe.

And whether or not any of the new shows on the network horizon match the success of the CBS hit, which triggered an industry-wide race to develop similar programming, the reality genre is here to stay, most analysts say.

As always, the fortunes of individual shows will be closely tied to ratings in 2001, but the advantageous economics of reality programming make such fare a sure bet to proliferate in an industry where nearly 90 percent of new offerings fail in their first year. The bottom line is that most reality programs from Fox's long-running "Cops" to ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to CBS's "Big Brother," can be churned out at a fraction of the cost of sit-coms and dramas.

"Not only are these shows cheaper to produce, but they're getting the audience. Where's the loss?" asks Joe Saltzman, associate dean at USC's Annenberg School for Communications. "Who's going to want to pay to produce 'The Practice' or 'Seinfeld' when you see 'Millionaire' take the top six spots in the ratings?"

Networks getting real

With more than a dozen new shows in production and many more in development, the number of reality programs reaching America's living rooms will continue to grow in the latter half of 2001 and into 2002.

The trend will become even more pronounced if anticipated strikes by actors, directors and writers occur, because reality shows don't require the services of professionals in those fields. In the interim, schedulers are hustling to get their own reality-based shows in place before what is likely to be a strike-disrupted season begins in the fall.

"It's a fall-back plan," said Paul McGuire, senior vice president of media relations for UPN. "These are unscripted shows so you're not signatory to the writer's and director's guilds."

No one is suggesting that reality shows featuring non-professionals will take the place of more traditional programming, but actors and other could lose out if the genre continues to grow, especially in prime time.

"It's a dangerous strike for those people," Saltzman said. "It may be that a lot of those big salaries are not going to go back to the writers and directors."

Reality programming now falls under the larger umbrella of alternative programming. That includes not just the sensational, such as UPN's upcoming "Chains of Love," in which contestants are shackled to four potential dates who are released one by one, but quiz shows such as "Millionaire," variety shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway" and some news magazine shows.

All the major networks now staff alternative programming departments dedicated to developing shows outside of the drama/sit-com mold that dominated prime-time schedules for decades.

"To have a balance of these type of shows in your programming arsenal is helpful when you're talking about the bottom line," said McGuire. "We are always interested in truly alternative shows with new concepts."

Even at NBC, where the prime-time emphasis has remained on scripted dramas and comedies, reality programming will be an increasing part of the mix.

"You've got an audience that's grown up watching cable television that is moving into the prime network viewing age, and they grew up watching reality programs," said Curt Sharp, vice president of alternative programming at NBC. "And the producers who are in this area have really honed their craft so we're seeing better quality."

Although increased quality means higher production costs, most reality shows are still a bargain compared to dramas and sit-coms.

Making shows such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother" even more valuable is their success drawing young viewers coveted by many advertisers.

"It used to be it was cheap to advertise on these shows and the net profits weren't great," Turell said. "Now advertisers are more willing to spend because they're tracking a strong demographic."

But not everyone agrees.

Richard Weigand, media director for Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, said many advertisers remain loath to sponsor reality programs. "The more controversial, the more reluctant they are," he said.

Weigand also questioned the wisdom of CBS's decision to air "Survivor: The Australian Outback" this winter on Thursday nights opposite "Friends" on NBC. The first "Survivor" and "Millionaire" caught fire, he said, but most of the copycats bombed out and it remains to be seen if the new "Survivor" can match its predecessor's popularity in a highly competitive time slot.

"The whole TV market goes in cycles. We happen to be in a reality cycle right now. That will pass," he said.

Still, Saltzman said "Big Brother," which received poor reviews and drew much smaller audiences than "Survivor," demonstrated that reality shows don't have to be big hits to make money.

"One reason that 'Survivor' did so well is that it was produced beautifully," Saltzman said. "'Big Brother' showed that a lousy show that was poorly produced could still be successful."

Reality bites

With the networks hungry for more reality shows, production companies are hustling to fill the void.

Van Nuys-based Bunim-Murray Productions, which produces MTV's long-running reality shows "The Real World" and "Road Rules," is developing at least three new shows for the networks: "Foreplay," featuring six singles who get together for an intimate evening presided over by a "veejay of love;" "Real Medical," which is taped in a clinic and deals with everyday medical cases; and "Lost in the USA," a reality race across the country that is being produced in partnership with Michael Ovitz's Artists Television Group.

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