Reality the biggest winner

NBC block beats Fox's 'Connor'

Fox's new drama series "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" did well in its regular time-slot premiere, averaging 10.1 million viewers and a 4.2 rating/10 share among adults 18-49. But it still lost the 9 p.m. hour to NBC's "Deal or No Deal" (15.1 million, 5.0/12).

In fact, NBC's unscripted block of "American Gladiators" (10.6 million, 4.6/1) and "Deal" dominated the 8-10 p.m. time period for a ratings win that is indicative of the networks' brave new world of strike scheduling, where reality shows are making a bigger splash than scripted programs.

With the exception of the premiere episode of "Connor" that debuted to massive football-inflated numbers Sunday, such reality series as NBC's "Gladiators," "The Biggest Loser" and "The Apprentice" and ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Supernanny" and "Wife Swap" have generated strong ratings since the beginning of the year. And that's without the big unscripted gun that began its seventh season Tuesday, "American Idol."

Meanwhile, scripted giants "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" on CBS posted season lows last week.

What's more, faced with shortages of original episodes of their top scripted series because of the strike, NBC and ABC have surrendered some of their signature scripted time slots to reality. NBC airs "Celebrity Apprentice" at 9 p.m. Thursdays, and ABC will run "Oprah's Big Give" at 9 p.m. Sundays.

With unscripted fare taking over more and better primetime slots and performing so well there, what will happen after the writers strike is over and scripted series resume production?

"We're not going to erase all this reality and replace it with scripted," NBC programming chief Ben Silverman said. "It will be a blend of scripted and unscripted programming."

In terms of a license fee, top-tier network reality shows are now comparable to scripted shows. But they allow flexibility that no comedy or drama can provide, for example, extending an episode from an hour to 90 minutes or two hours with just a few days' notice, Silverman said.

Despite the current resurgence of reality programming and the strike-related retreat of scripted series, "I don't think it spells Armageddon for scripted content," said Shari Anne Brill, senior vp and director of programming at New York-based ad buyer Carat USA. "Good scripted content gets affluent, upscale audiences. In many instances, the numbers that come to those reality shows are not the same type of viewers. Is it eyeballs or quality eyeballs?"

All reality all the time also might prove to be too much of a good thing, cautions Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media.

"Networks have no choice, but at some point you run the risk of viewer fatigue of the genre," he said.

Nellie Andreeva reported from Los Angeles; Paul J. Gough reported from New York.