To millions of cable viewers, reality shows can provide an inside look at a celebrity’s home life or the daily routine of a bounty hunter. They can also help people make over their homes, faces, wardrobes and personalities. For cable operators, though, the genre that detractors years ago said would have a life span of 15 minutes is becoming a profitable business tool. Charter Media advertising manager Jeff Salkin says Bridezillas, the reality series that documents how reasonably calm women sometimes morph into raging beasts just before their nuptials, helped him put the WE network on the map with a local furniture retailer outside Los Angeles recently. The series’ popularity helped Salkin close a $10,000 ad sales promotion. Time Warner Cable exploited the popularity of Bravo’s new Top Chef cook-off show by introducing a two-way polling application from Navic Networks in eight of its divisions. In Time Warner’s Albany, N.Y., system, executives report 25% of digital cable subscribers who watch the show have used the interactive platform, which asks viewers two questions each week. And at a time when iPods and the Internet are luring younger viewers away from TV, reality series are accomplishing what Ponce de Le�n never could: They’ve found the Fountain of Youth. The 18-to-34-year-old crowd is especially popular with local and national advertisers, who pay top dollar for networks like MTV for that reason. "We need hot networks," says Andrew Capone, SVP, marketing and business development for National Cable Communications, the giant national cable spot sales company. You want hot? In the first quarter of 2006, 23 reality episodes encompassing eight series occupied the top 50 spots among that young adult demo, led by the 5.9 million viewers for VH1’s Flavor of Love finale March 12. Reality shows are "stickier than other types of shows," says Michael Hirschorn, the network’s EVP, original programming and production. By helping rebuild brands like A&E, reality series have also aided cable’s national spot sales effort, Capone says. Neither advertisers nor viewers had a clue what A&E stood for prior to the introduction of its reality slate in 2003. Hits like Dog the Bounty Hunter have restored the network’s credibility with national spot sponsors, Capone argues. In its third season, the series averaged 2.3 million viewers through late April, a 15% increase from its first year—at a time when many reality shows have already peaked. "We were literally a dying network," recalls Nancy Dubuc, A&E’s SVP of nonfiction and alternative programming, who credits network president Abbe Raven with guiding A&E toward what the network calls "real-life" television. "We had to do something quick to welcome younger viewers instead of alienating them. The most economical and quickest way was to try and do that through nonfiction programming." But most important, operators are beginning to figure out how to exploit the most popular reality shows. In Charter Communication’s Inland Empire division, Charter Media convinced the furniture retailer looking to reach women to invest in a promotion for WE’s Bridezillas instead of buying print or radio ads, says Salkin, an ad manager in the 85,000-subsystem. Hits like Bridezillas enable his reps to sell "boutique" networks with narrow skews, like WE, to skeptical merchants who usually prefer buying more recognized services, Salkin says. The tie-in gave the retailer a visible presence on hundreds of cross-channel spots for the series. "We have to educate our customers…that there are so many more options than what their perceptions are. Using a reality show like Bridezillas and a local promotion helps us sell the story that this is a safe place to put ad dollars," Salkin says. The series, which launched in January 2004, starts its third season June 11, having delivered an average of 409,000 viewers to WE in its second year, the network’s best numbers for an original show. "We follow lives of women our viewers can relate to," says network president Kim Martin. INTERACTIVITY = STICKINESS Reality series like American Idol have helped broadcasters engage viewers interactively through the Internet, but in eight Time Warner Cable divisions, subscribers have put away their computers and connect with Top Chef through the set-top. The operator began a live interactive polling and text messaging application with Top Chef in March. Since then viewer participation has grown up to fourfold in the 340,000-subscriber Albany division, according to David Washburn, the system’s director of Web and interactive services. "Typically every week we see the polls go a little higher," Washburn says. Viewers vote twice—once on a question related to that week’s show and then on which chef they would fire—although their ballots don’t influence the outcome. In addition to appealing to young, tech-savvy viewers, Time Warner believes the popularity of such applications will pay off by enabling cable platforms to mimic the Internet’s ability to more precisely calculate the effectiveness of a sponsor’s ads. "More and more people are understanding our capabilities, and we’re trying to use those capabilities…in cooperation with clients," says Peter Taubkin, the division’s VP of government relations and public affairs. Reality series are also boosting at least one operator’s on-demand revenue. Earlier this month, Comcast cashed in on a proven reality hit, Survivor, offering the show’s May 15 finale and a reunion special in an ad sales package with GM. The operator is offering the VOD special free to subscribers in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, where previous Survivor episodes had cost 99 cents. Ads run at the beginning, middle and end of the programs. SHORT-LIVED But the magic potion of the reality genre isn’t long lasting. Even the most wildly popular new reality series have relatively short half-lives compared with scripted shows, where writers can inject new life into a sitcom that needs a fresh "sit." Ironically part of the problem might be reality’s appeal to a youthful demographic that, programming execs contend, lacks a long attention span. Indeed, reality’s ratings typically start to slide in a show’s second season and collapse soon thereafter as viewers tire of the premise, the quirky/wacky/eccentric C-list celebrities at a show’s core or the thin premise of one-note genres like makeover series. "You see it over and over again. You have the same characters and relationships, but they don’t grow, don’t change," says Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting, who notes that shows like A&E’s Growing Up Gotti and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy helped their networks but lacked legs. Gotti‘s initial average audience of 1.38 million viewers shrank to 883,000 by its third year, according to Nielsen Media Research, and Queer Eye‘s original audience of 1.63 million viewers among adults 18 to 49 had collapsed to 427,000 in its third and most recent season. To NCC’s Capone that means spot cable advertisers are always trying to catch hot new shows early—while rates are still low—before they hit the wall. In their defense, A&E’s Dubuc says programmers expect only a limited run from reality shows and Bravo’s SVP of programming and production Frances Berwick notes that Queer Eye is still performing better than previous Bravo series. The formula for longevity? Constant change, say producers. "The fact that the show moves to a new city each year and each year there’s a new cast, that allows us to stay fresh," says Real World creator John Murray. For operators that means hard-core fans of The Real World are less likely to ditch cable, especially if these shows are accompanied by two-way or on-demand services that can’t be had on satellite. Reality Roundup One person’s reality series is another’s documentary, so it can be tricky to label unscripted programming. Is a BET series about football star Vince Young a reality or a documentary series? The following is a selected list of networks that have made aggressive, successful moves into the reality category. A&E
Launched: 1984
Ownership: Hearst Corp., NBC Universal, Walt Disney Co.
Key Mgmt: Abbe Raven, president; Nancy Dubuc, SVP, nonfiction and alternative programming
Top Reality Series: Dog the Bounty Hunter
Upcoming: Gene Simmons Family Jewels (third quarter); Driving Force (summer)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 998,000 (-17%)*
Q1 18-49 Audience: 509,000 (+2%) BRAVO
Launched: 1980
Ownership: NBC Universal (NBC Universal Cable Entertainment)
Key Mgmt: Lauren Zalaznick, president; Frances Berwick, SVP, programming and production
Top Reality Series: Project Runway
Upcoming: Million Dollar Listing (June 12); Work Out, Tabloid Wars (summer)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 500,000 (-1%)
Q1 18-49 Audience: 281,000 (+1%) BET
Lauched
: 1980
Ownership: Viacom Inc.
Key Mgmt: Debra Lee, president/COO; Reginald Hudlin, pres. of entertainment
Top Reality Series: Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown
Upcoming: DMX: Soul of a Man (July)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 442,000 (+27%)
Q1 2006 18-49 Audience: 249,000 (+31%) FOX REALITY
Launched: March 24, 2005
Ownership: News Corp.
Key Mgmt: David Lyle, COO/GM
Top Reality Series: Reality Revealed, Reality Remix
Upcoming: Solitary (June 5)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: N/A HGTV
Launched: 1994
Ownership: E. W. Scripps Co.
Key Mgmt: Judy Girard, president; Michael Dingley, SVP, programming and content strategy; Mary Ellen Iwata, VP, program development
Top Reality Series: Designed to Sell
Upcoming
: Design Star (July 23), Under One Roof (Aug 25)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 946,000* (+11%)
Q1 18-49 Audience: 362,000 (+13%) MTV
Launched: 1981
Ownership: Viacom Inc.
Key Mgmt: Christina Norman, president; Lois Curren, EVP, MTV series entertainment and programming; Doug Rohrer, EVP, series development & animation
Top Reality Series: Laguna Beach
Upcoming: The Hills (TBD), Blowin’ Up (Q 3), Rolling Stone Magazine project (TBA)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 984,000 (-5%)
Q1 2006 18-49 Audience: 566,000 (-6%) TLC
Launched
: 1972 (sold to Discovery in 1991)
Ownership: Discovery Communications Inc.
Key Mgmt: David Abraham, EVP/GM; Christian Drobnyk, SVP, programming & development
Top Reality Series: What Not to Wear
Upcoming: Family Trip (Q4), Take Home Chef, The Monastery (late ’06-early ’07)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 436,000 (+2%)
Q1 2006 18-49 Audience: 243,000 (+3%) VH1
Launched: 1985
Ownership: Viacom Inc.
Key Mgmt: Tom Calderone, GM; Michael Hirschorn, EVP, original programming and production
Top Reality Series: Flavor of Love
Upcoming: Supergroup (May)
Q1 2006 Total Viewers: 715,000 (+17%)
Q1 2006 18-49 Audience: 441,000 (+11%) WE
Launched: 1997 (as Romance Classics); re-branded WE in 2001
Ownership: Cablevision Systems Corp.
Key Mgmt: Kim Martin, EVP/GM
Top Reality Series: Bridezillas
Upcoming: USA Today Weight Loss Challenge (June 12); Hair Trauma (August)
Q 1 2006 Total Viewers: 217,000 (+37%)
Q 1 2006 18-49 Audience: 94,000 (+54%) *Comparisons are with Q1 2005 Source: Nielsen Media Research

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