Nets look to cut reality costs

Belt-tightening not just a scripted problem anymore

Now you know networks are hurting: Reality-show budgets are being cut.

Long considered the cheapest of programming genres, reality programs increasingly are under the gun to cut costs. Producers are being urged to shoot shows faster than ever and use indoor settings to help reduce expenses.

"Every year there's more and more budgetary pressure," said Mark Cronin, producer of such VH1 hits as "Rock of Love" and "I Love New York." "Every network is having its budgetary problems, and that's being pushed back toward all content. So there's a constant pressure to produce more for less."

Networks have been reducing the budgets of comedies and dramas to offset television ratings erosion. Producers on such veteran series as ABC's "Boston Legal" and NBC's "Law & Order" responded by shedding cast members, while others, including the daytime soap "Guiding Light," have overhauled production methods.

But reality shows have a reputation as dirt-cheap alternatives to scripted shows. At least they used to. CBS' globe-trotting "Survivor" might once have been considered an inexpensive solution to fill a time slot, but by today's reality standards, it's highly ambitious.

Most new reality shows are shot in the vein of NBC's "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad" or Fox's "The Moment of Truth" -- studio-based shows hosted by lesser-known talent and touting relatively modest prizes.

"There's been a rise in studio-based shows this past year, which are often less expensive to produce," said Jane Lipsitz, executive producer of Bravo's "Top Chef."

Tighter costs also mean productions taking less time to shoot and edit a show.

"Networks want smaller budgets and more studio shows," said Howard Owens, executive producer of NBC's "American Gladiators" and FX's "30 Days." "They don't want you to shoot for nine days an episode that you'll have to edit for eight weeks."

The rapid pace can affect a show's quality, though it's unclear whether audiences care. "Moment of Truth" became the highest-rated new show of the season and is essentially two people sitting in chairs onstage. In an era of grainy amateur videos on YouTube that receive millions of hits, just having a show shot by professionals seems to elevate the product above the qualitative waterline.

"Audiences seem to be very forgiving of what we used to think of as unspeakably low production values," Cronin said.

There's only one way an expensive reality series can get in the door: have a concept that's already a hit overseas. Producers say that sometimes the best way to get a U.S. network to buy an idea is to first sell it in Belgium. "Truth," for instance, wasn't bought by Fox until it became a hit in Colombia.

"Buyers, they're all looking for the edge or the guarantee," said Arthur Smith, executive producer of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen." "And the guarantee comes down to, yes, it worked in another country, yes there's a celebrity attached. There are a few buyers who will take a chance on a new concept. But it's hard to sell."
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