Reality series thrive in pre-WGA strike climate

As the Writers Guild of America prepares for a possible strike next month when its contract with Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers officially expires, U.S. kids cablers seem particularly well prepared for any disruption in creative services with popular...
April 1, 2001

As the Writers Guild of America prepares for a possible strike next month when its contract with Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers officially expires, U.S. kids cablers seem particularly well prepared for any disruption in creative services with popular unscripted reality formats playing heavily in their new show lineups.

‘In light of the fact that the writers strike may upset production, it’s a good idea to have a couple of these things sitting on deck,’ says Jim Benton, creator of Fox Kids’ Spy Dogs, who also has several kid shows in development at Nickelodeon. ‘In the last little while, we’ve seen a couple of reality shows thrive, including game shows. They do well, they don’t cost very much, and because of the writers strike, everybody I know is interested in talking about them.’

Leading kids programmers agree that the popularity of reality programming shows no signs of waning, and they are eager to trigger more reality offerings-strike or no strike.

‘We do reality programming, not because it’s cheaper or because it’s opportunistic with a WGA strike looming, but because it speaks to our core tween audience in a dialect they completely understand,’ says Gary Marsh, Disney Channel’s executive VP of original programming.

The critical and commercial success of Disney’s Bug Juice, which premiered in 1999, has encouraged the cable net to expand its reality reach. ‘Our reality series capture a part of preteen life that no scripted series, comedy or drama, can ever replicate as directly,’ says Marsh. ‘These shows define our network in a fundamental way, and that’s the reason we are still committing significant resources to reality programming.’

Bug Juice: Brush Ranch Camp, produced by Evolution Film & Tape, continues the franchise by following kid campers in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Solid ratings for Totally Hoops (also produced by Evolution Film & Tape) and Totally Circus (from the U.K.’s Double Exposure) is leading to Totally Music (Evolution), a summer-launching series that traces the lives of 12 talented students in Los Angeles-based Hamilton High School’s music program.

‘We’d be crazy if we weren’t keeping an eye on the writers strike because it does have an impact on our narrative series,’ says Discovery’s senior VP of children’s programming Marjorie Kaplan. ‘But the threat of a strike is not affecting our programming decisions at this point. We have enough in inventory and enough in the works that we’ll be fine. We’ve been doing reality programming since we were born and currently have four shows in active development.’

Discovery’s Outward Bound (produced by New York-based Lancit Media) has been a success for three years, and the net has a new

16-ep season in production for Q3 2001, this time with kids exploring Costa Rica. Kaplan is also preparing to launch 13 episodes of a new reality series called Sail Away (produced by L.A.’s Two Oceans) this fall. ‘A group of 13- to 15-year-old kids live on two boats in the Caribbean for five weeks, with a couple of instructors, but no parents,’ Kaplan explains. ‘They have incredible experiences-swimming with sharks, weathering a lightning storm and bonding with each other.’

Some cable execs were smart enough to plan ahead for the possible writers walk-out. ‘We’re in the lucky position of having ordered a lot of our series for the upcoming season 12 to 18 months out; because a lot of it is animation, you need that lead time,’ says Joel Andryc, executive VP of kids programming for Fox Kids Network and Fox Family Channel. ‘Some of our live-action series are co-productions with Canadian production companies (like The Zack Files with Decode), which aren’t affiliated with the U.S. writers guild. We aren’t going to be forced to look at reality as a stop-gap measure.’

While a strike might affect some of Fox Family’s established scripted series-Big Wolf on Campus, for one, which is filmed in Canada by Ciné-Groupe, but written by WGA writers-Andryc is quick to point out that new series are waiting in the wings. ‘We are crunching through the Mary-Kate & Ashley sitcom real quick. We can get at least 13 to 20 episodes written before the strike date.’

The new Olsen twins series, So Little Time, was put into production before the Christmas holidays in anticipation of the potential writers and actors strikes. ‘We wanted to accelerate everything so we could launch it as a weekly series in the summer,’ Andryc notes.

‘We are probably impacted less by the strike,’ explains WAM’s VP of programming Midge Pierce. ‘WAM is looking at a variety of sources for our programs. We are not entirely dependent on Hollywood.’

Despite WAM’s international market leanings, Pierce is readying Music Alive: Live, a new U.S. tween partial-reality series that goes into production in May for broadcast in September. Produced by L.A.’s Creative Production Group, the series follows a fictional teen host pursuing his dream of becoming a rock star by meeting famous real-life celebrities and learning who inspired them-from Jimi Hendrix to Beethoven.

While the continued success of adult-targeted reality series obviously bodes well for the future of the fare in general, the kidnets have strong opinions about the difference between their wholesome programming and the brash prime-time newcomers.

‘I am personally appalled by the network reality shows and how prurient they have gotten-and the tween audience is being lured to these programs,’ says Pierce. ‘We want to be known for `reality with a conscience’ and are offering real kids, real experiences.’

‘We aren’t killing pigs or throwing people off the island,’ says Discovery’s Kaplan in reference to prime-time hits like Survivor. ‘But there is no denying that kids find that sort of challenge in reality programming exciting to watch.’

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