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Surviving Survivor

After 12 weeks of episodes, it's down to the final four.  Who will walk off the beach with the million?  
And why on earth do we care?


NBC scrambling to catch the reality train

Thursday, July 20, 2000
Pasadena, Calif.

It's true: They have no shame.

They can't afford to. Being picky about the kind of TV shows they put on the air almost cost NBC's top programmers their jobs this summer.

Scott Sassa and Garth Ancier are the team ultimately responsible for such highly rated and critically acclaimed shows as ER, The West Wing, Will & Grace, Friends and Frasier. So when the reality-TV bandwagon passed through Hollywood this year, they weren't in any hurry to jump on.

Let aging CBS chase after younger viewers with such cheesy shows as Survivor and Big Brother. Let ABC and Fox expose their creative bankruptcy with a desperate rush to develop a me-too lineup of so-called reality shows. NBC would take the high road, keep its schedule clear of rat-eaters, and win a few Emmys in the process.

It was a big mistake. When Sassa and Ancier appeared before TV critics here this week to discuss their fall schedule, they looked suitably humiliated. "The line of what is acceptable on television has definitely been blurred," said Sassa, a man who just last year was condemning the amount of sexual innuendo in his network's relatively innocent sitcoms. " . . . One of the problems that we had is that we are so obsessed with making sure we have the highest-quality shows, the highest-quality audiences and, quite frankly, because of that, we weren't so aggressive as we should have been in this area."

Translation: Sassa's big brothers at General Electric, the conglomerate that owns NBC, read him the riot act when Survivor turned out to be a hit. GE executives have no use for Emmys and they can't tell Will from Grace. Stock prices are all they care about, and Wall Street loves reality TV.

Which explains why Sassa, the president of NBC's West-Coast division, sounded contrite and just a little bit stunned when he faced the critics this week. Asked what kind of show might now be welcomed at NBC that wouldn't have made it through the door a few months ago, he seemed at a loss. "I wish we had a line that we could demarcate what is right and wrong. But it has a lot to do with context. . . . I don't know that there's a hard-and-fast principle of a certain thing we wouldn't do."

It's open house at NBC for any huckster with a reality format to sell, and each wacky idea gets serious attention from the network's top brass. "We've heard every variation on how you can put 10 or 15 people on a bus, a train, whatever, and then kick them off one by one," said a weary-sounding Ancier, who's the president of NBC Entertainment when he isn't searching for new forms of incarceration.

Still, time is running out, and they have to come up with something if they want to keep their jobs. After a little bit of prodding by the critics and some preliminary hemming and hawing about how NBC "will not diminish the level of quality we have in our story-form shows," the sordid truth came out. Sassa and Ancier are smitten by a show tentatively titled Chains of Love, in which a woman is chained to four men and casts them off one by one. "It's a relationship show," said Ancier optimistically.

While NBC's so-called leaders were busy selling their souls to the tune of Chain of Fools, some of the sharpest thoughts on reality TV turned up in the most unexpected place.

Aaron Spelling, a producer not known for his commitment to quality television, has developed a campy prime-time soap opera for NBC called Titans, starring Yasmine Bleeth (Baywatch, Nash Bridges) and Victoria Principal (Dallas, countless infomercials). Asked for his take on TV's latest obsession, the man who has seen everything during his half-century in the business called the reality onslaught "a total disaster."

"I'm sorry," chimed in Bleeth, "but is Survivor a reality show? I mean, do 12 people ever get marooned on a desert island? This isn't reality we're watching. It's pumped-up fantasy."

But the wisest thoughts on the success of shows such as Survivor were left to Principal, a shrewd businesswoman who has made a career out of elevating fantasy over reality. "It's summer, and what we're faced with is a lot of reruns, so how legitimate is the competition? Why don't we wait and see when the new season begins, after the Olympics, how many reality shows survive and how much the public turns once again to entertainment by actors? And a lot of reality shows have really bad actors."

Turning to good actors, two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest is joining the cast of the long-running series Law & Order. The Woody Allen favourite (Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway, Radio Days), who also won an Emmy for a guest appearance in The Road to Avonlea, replaces Steven Hill as the show's new district attorney.

Talk Shows

Open Mike with Mike Bullard. Carla Collins, (Comedy Network at 10 p.m., CTV at 12:05 a.m.)
David Letterman. Jeff Daniels, Bob Sarlatte. (CBS at 11:35 p.m.)
Jay Leno. Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Biggs, Motley Crue. (NBC at 11:35 p.m.)
Bill Maher. RuPaul, Anthony Falzarano, Jamie Babbit. (ABC at 12:05 a.m.)
Craig Kilborn. Mena Suvari, Ian Gomez. (Global, CBS at 12:35 a.m.)

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