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Bad News for Reality-TV Haters

By RD Heldenfels Published: October 19, 2006

You may already have seen the reports that NBC Universal is slashing its budget, cutting jobs and reorganizing. But here's the scary part of the story, from today's Wall Street Journal

Among NBC Universal's most significant moves is its decision to stop scheduling expensive dramas and comedies during the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. time slot. ... Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal's television group, said ... it will concentrate on lower-cost programming. Mr. Zucker said advertiser interest isn't high enough to justify spending on scripted shows.

For instance, viewers in coming seasons might see a game show such as "Deal or No Deal" at 8 p.m. on Tuesday instead of "Friday Night Lights," a drama that currently occupies the slot. The financial payoff could be significant for the network: Mr. Zucker said ''Deal or No Deal'' costs $1.1 million an episode, while "Friday Night Lights" costs $2.6 million an episode.

Oh, so many things to say here.

Starting with, if NBC had a show with ''Friends''-level ratings, it would have no problem paying heavy freight and putting it at 8 p.m. -- because the cost would be covered and then some by advertisers. But NBC is having a tough time finding those hits right now, and Zucker's boss is obviously saying that he had better cut costs until the hits come along. To which Zucker apparently replied, ''Thank you, sir, may I have another?''

Also, what's being presented as a philosophical change at NBC is just another way of saying what TV programmers have known for years: If you have big schedule problems, then reality can provide a quick, cheap fix. Hence ''Deal or No Deal'' and ''1 Vs. 100.''  Of course, what's also known is that reality concepts can burn out even more quickly than a scripted hit. (Can you say ''Joe Millionaire''? Or, closer to NBC's home, ''The Apprentice''?) So you need to keep coming up with good new reality ideas or you end up with, well, ''The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.''

Besides, even though I'll watch ''Deal or No Deal'' from time to time, ''Friday Night Lights'' is a whole lot better. Which makes this whole change at NBC even funnier in the context of this week's ''Studio 60.'' Remember Amanda Peet rejecting a sleazy reality show and getting backed up by the big boss? She sure doesn't work for a real network.

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