Ed Waller – Orlando Sentinel

After two years of drama in the ascendant, reality programming is bouncing back next season, this time with several formats on the September starting blocks. Ed Waller talks to unscripted specialist Andrew Glassman.

Things are changing. Usually the Upfronts are all about scripted product, with unscripted stuff queued up for the summer months or waiting in the wings for when the scripted shows fail mid-season. But this year reality formats took more of a central role in the fall grids and LA-based unscripted producer Andrew Glassman, for one, is very happy.

” Reality is no longer simply the stop-gap genre it once was,” says the creator and executive producer of NBC shows like Average Joe and Three Wishes, and who has two new unscripted formats- The Ex-Wives Club and National Bingo Night- arriving on ABC this month. “This year we saw networks carving out time periods and saying ‘Bring us your most creative unscripted ideas as scripted is no longer working for us here.”

NBC, for example. “They’ve been really aggressive, saying their Friday slot won’t be given to just one show but will be a rotating reality zone, six episodes of one show then six of another, like a revolving cooperative.” Though Friday is one of the least popular nights in the TV week- or perhaps precisely because it is- ABC has also told producers that its 9pm slot is open and it is looking for a new vision for the same night as a game night, Glassman adds. “We’re starting to see stodgy process of scheduling to completely open up, breathing, with good ideas now driving the scheduling.”

Looking at the fall schedules that were unveiled last week, the evidence is there. Under the NBC 2.0 initiative, the network has unscripted programming across the 8pm slot on all nights of the week bar the Thursday night comedies, airing formats like Deal or No Deal on Mondays and Wednesdays, The Biggest Loser on Tuesdays, and either 1 vs 100 or newcomer The Singing Bee on Fridays. ABC also has a double dose of Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor in its starting grid for fall.

Perhaps The CW’s grid had the most reality. Alongside Beauty & the Geek on Tuesdays and America’s Next Top Model on Wednesday and Sunday nights, the network has The Farmer Wants a Wife, a UK reality dating format from FremantleMedia, the second edition of Pussycat Dolls Present and Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants waiting in the wings.

Over on CBS the swing back to reality was even more surprising: Kid Nation takes pole position not on Saturday morning but on Wednesday nights at 8pm. It’s a reality series in which 40 kids aged between eight and 15 will have 40 days to build a new world- in a New Mexican ghost town called Bonanza City that died in the 19th century. Already billed as a reality version of Lord of the Flies, the Survivor-esque format is being produced by Emmy-winner Tom Forman (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) via Tom Forman Productions and Good TV. Survivor is also back on Thursdays at 8pm, and Amazing Race is lined up for mid-season.

” And for a network like CBS to announce a new mid-season gameshow like Power of 10 [from Sony Pictures TV and Michael Davies] shows there are some really good options in alternative series right now. NBC has games everywhere. It’s just not something you thought would ever occur. The reality market is extremely viable. Everybody is looking for unscripted ideas – it’s like back when the first reality wave hit America. The tide was low for a year or two but it’s rolled right back. It’s unbelievable- they even handed out bingo cards at the ABC upfront! The networks appreciate the fact that advertisers like them taking gambles, not coming out with the same old, same old.”

The reason behind those bingo cards, Glassman’s gameshow National Bingo Night, debuted last Friday, May 18, on ABC, adding yet another Brit – Ed Sanders (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) – to US network primetime, in a show dominated by a huge acrylic sphere shooting bingo balls all over the place. “But the added value is that anyone across America can go to abc.com and get a bingo card and play at home,” says Glassman. “That was sold from the first page. I took it to ABC as I thought if these people can make ballroom dancing into a hit show they’ll have the imagination to take bingo and see the light at the end of the tunnel, not laugh me out of the room.”

And on Monday, May 28, comes reality format The Ex-Wives Club, in which couples in the throes of messy divorces get what Glassman calls an “emotional makeover,” involving getting angry, getting even and then getting over their wayward former spouses. “ABC has such a good record of transformational shows like Wife Swap so it’s a good place for Ex-Wives Club, which has some hardcore revenge but ultimately is a very positive show.”

Glassman is now looking to expand his Fox-backed production company on to the international market. “20th Century Fox distributes my formats internationally and since we made the bingo pilot 18 months ago they’ve managed to sell the format into six or seven countries, including a major English-speaking market- but not the UK. I get a creative kick out of seeing my ideas coming to life in countries half way around the world. Ex-Wives Club has also sold to Russia, Holland, France, Colombia and Romania.”

Glassman’s previous forays overseas include selling his Finding J Smith reality format to TVNZ in New Zealand, via Touchdown TV, and seeing the US version of his four-season NBC series Average Joe sold pretty much everywhere, though never as a local production. “There are so many success stories of formats coming into the US from abroad but fewer stories of US formats going the other way. One of the priorities of my company is to change that.”