How Reality TV (Just Maybe) Saved the Writers from Themselves

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Saviors? The 'Survivor' final three: Colby, Tina and Keith

It's no secret that the "creative" part of Hollywood doesn't much care for reality TV. Disgruntled TV writers — and nowadays, is there any other kind? — took to the Internet to try to "spoil" episodes of "Survivor" by handicapping the results; Susan Sarandon did a guest spot on "Friends" because she found "Survivor" so reprehensible; and reality programs, however much they burn up the ratings, aren't allowed to carry their torches into the Emmys.

So it was odd to hear reports a few weeks ago that actress Kate Hudson had been sought to get a tryout for "Survivor 3." Stranger still that CBS's Les Moonves actually floated the idea of a celebrity edition of "Survivor," a notion that the show's zillionaire producer Mark Burnett seemed to stand behind at the "Survivor 2" post-finale conference call with the press.

(Insert your own joke here about [a] Kate Hudson and Ray Romano competing for a reward of Sam Pellegrino or an Ericsson cell-phone call to their agents, [b] an all-rehab edition with Robert Downey Jr., Aaron Sorkin and Matthew Perry drying out in the Kalahari, or [c] Kathie Lee Gifford. Or don't. The very fact that a Celebrity Survivor can be contemplated in essence means that the line between reality and parody has forever been destroyed.)

Now, I'll believe a "Celebrity Survivor" when I actually see the emaciated husk of George Clooney licking rice dregs out of a coconut shell. For one thing, while I and the rest of civilization would absolutely watch, it would also effectively be the end of the series. You could never go back to real people once you've gone the "Battle of the Network Stars" route. What's more, given real stars' tight schedules and accustomedness to pampering, the danger is CBS would either have to water down the competition into a bogus vacation, or turn it into a "Hollywood Squares" full of the Bruce Vilanches of the showbiz world.

But more to the point, why would a team of actors and actresses even entertain the thought of going over to the dark side to do a reality show? Maybe because, if Hollywood actually went on strike, it'd be the only work in town.

Fortunately, the writers' guild and the producers reached an agreement Friday night. And who do the writers and networks and "Just Shoot Me" fans have to thank? None other than reality TV programs.

You can think whatever you want about the writers' complaints (personally, I have no problem with their trying to get paid a fair share when huge corporations re-sell their work, even if it's hard to get all weepy over a battle of millionaires vs. billionaires.) But it was lost on no one that the writers picked the worst time in recent years to threaten a strike. Sure, the already-soft ad market gave them a little leverage over the networks, who need to announce a fall schedule to advertisers in a couple of weeks. But writers are now negotiating with multi-tentacled entertainment Borgs that are well-positioned to survive a strike for quite a while longer than the writers can. Especially with all those cheap, fast, non-writer-dependent reality series doing so nicely out there.

You have to wonder how the negotiations might have gone if this year's second wave of reality shows had crapped out as badly as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"'s imitators did the year before. If "Temptation Island" had folded like a cheap sarong, if "The Mole" were not burrowing back for a second season, the writers may have come to the table a good bit cockier and, perhaps, less motivated to settle. But the shows thrived, with more coming up in fall, which you can bet put the fear of God and Jeff Probst into writers, for all their puffed-chested predictions that the public would finally burn out on the cheap programming.

But if TV network execs blithely assumed that they didn't have much to lose in a strike, they're fooling themselves. (OK, so they probably are.) Even with the short-term bump in the networks' ratings compared with cable that followed "Millionaire," the overall trend is not in favor of the networks, which have steadily lost share to the rest of the zillion-channel universe, with no reason to expect to gain much back.

The networks' original reason for being — providing the means of zapping programs to your living room — for all practical purposes no longer exists in the age of cable. Instead, the networks exist as funders and aggregators of programming. A Fox or NBC is merely a helpful mnemonic to remind you where to find "Ally McBeal" or "Providence." In some cases, they've reconceived themselves not as broadcasters, but brands: the raison d'etre of The WB, say, is to be your one- stop-shopping source for teenage-witch dramas.

But even the networks' new role isn't guaranteed forever. Already, viewers who use digital recorders like TiVo can record programs and choose from a list of suggestions supplied by their recorders, all without knowing what network a show airs on. Granted, today these are fledgling gizmos used by a handful of technophiles. But in the future, this technology may be standard in your cable box — and the software on it could be so sophisticatedly attuned to your tastes that you will watch not ABC but your smart box's own custom-made grouping of shows: say, the 32-Year-Old College-Educated Hispanic Mother of Two in a Northwestern Suburb Network.

Not tomorrow, but someday, viewers may know or care nothing about what network their favorite shows are on. It's not hard to imagine the day that someone takes a profitable hit and moves it to satellite, or a cheap cable station, where a nation's smart set-top boxes will find it just as easily as if it were on a network — and with more profit going to the creators. Anything that helps viewers further break the network habit — and "Survivor" or no, a strike would do just that — would weaken the networks' brands, which are the only important assets they now have, and hasten their twilight.

This time, reality TV may ironically just have saved the dream factory from itself. Of course, there's still the actors' union, which could walk out at the end of June if it doesn't get a deal as good as the writers'. Before the actors get carried away, though, they may want to remember the lesson of "Survivor 2" (which they watched just like everyone else, whether they admit it or not). Real people are all too happy to vote the actors off if you give them an excuse. Just ask Jerri.