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Fox announces 'Fox Reality Channel' cable network plans... whither goes Reality Central?


By Wade Paulsen, 07/13/2004 

In an announcement that roils the waters of the reality television world, Fox Networks Group today announced the creation of a new cable and satellite network, Fox Reality Channel, that is scheduled to debut in first quarter 2005.

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Fox Reality Channel will thus compete head-to-head with the previously-announced Reality Central network, which, according to the New York Daily News, is also planning to launch in first quarter 2005 (a year later than originally scheduled).

However, Reality Central, in which several reality stars are reputed to have invested, has only managed to ink digital distribution deals with a couple of small cable franchises (#8 Mediacom and #9 Insight), despite its repeated claims that it was about to reach an agreement with a Top 5 carrier. Meanwhile, Fox Reality Channel will be broadcast, at a minimum, through the Fox-owned DirecTV satellite network, according to Hollywood Reporter, giving it a huge advantage. As the country's largest satellite television provider, DirecTV claims 12.6 million digital customers, while Insight Communications reports 1.4 million basic cable subscribers and Mediacom Communications 1.55 million (with only a fraction of either company's subscribers receiving digital service.)

According to the announcement, Fox Reality Channel's planned program line-up will consist of several long-form and short-form original series, as well as unscripted series owned by Fox that have been newly customized with original bonus features. Fox Reality Channel will likewise utilize original and more immediate off-network content from Fox-owned studios, as well as from outside suppliers. The new network will offer a topical perspective on past and current reality series, and showcase highly popular relationship-based and competitive reality program formats.

Fox also says the network's programming won't only be limited to FOX-affiliated reality programming, and its current licensing track record has been consistent with those claims. After paying a reported $30 million for the syndication rights, the company's FX cable network is currently broadcasting repeat episodes of Endemol's Fear Factor this summer, although NBC holds exclusive syndication rights to the show. Therefore since Fox Networks Group has been willing to shell out some serious dollars to acquire reality product for its existing cable networks, there's is no reason to believe that the Fox Reality Channel won't receive the same treatment.

In addition to show reruns, Fox also claims that the Fox Reality Channel will provide a "steady diet" of contestant commentary, pre- and post-show interviews, auditions, outtakes and behind-the-scenes clips. The new network will also provide complementary Fox Reality Channel-branded video on demand and interactive opportunities to coincide with the core network's availability in early 2005. Personally, we can hardly wait for the announcement of a tie-in between Fox Reality Network and Fox's American Idol, the #1 rated program in the U.S. during the 2003-04 TV season.

By contrast, so far Reality Central has only revealed plans to rebroadcast the original overseas English language editions of four foreign-originated reality shows. The shows are Strip Search (from New Zealand, in which ordinary men compete for five slots in a strip-dance group); Single Girls (from the U.K., in which eight single women move in together and set out to find mates); Marry Me (from Australia, in which couples propose under unusual circumstances); and The Villa (from the U.K., in which singles are sent to a Spanish villa and must pair up while participating in challenges).

Even GSN, the former Game Show Network, has a far superior slate of reality fare than Reality Central's currently announced programming. For example, GSN has acquired the rebroadcast rights to ABC's The Mole and NBC's Average Joe and Dog Eat Dog, as well as having launched new reality shows of its own such as the Evan Marriott-hosted Fake-A-Date and the Darva Conger-hosted Vegas Weddings Unveiled, leaving Reality Central facing a far different (and much more competitive) network landscape than the one that existed when it was first announced in Spring 2003.

Of course, Reality Central has always planned that about half of its daily programming will be original, including a nightly 11 PM ESPN SportsCenter-like reality wrap-up show tentatively titled Get Real and a Talk Soup-like show that will cull clips from reality shows currently airing on other networks, with the balance of the original programming centered around E! Networks-like reality news reports and features. However, even with the explosion of digital platforms, many cable operators are likely to gamble on only one start-up reality-only network, and the choice between Fox Reality Channel, with its tie-ins to Fox shows, and Reality Central, appears pretty one-sided at this moment.

Said Fox Networks Group President and CEO Anthony Vinciquerra, "Fox has created some of television's most enduring reality programming while consistently taking the genre into exciting new directions. Our combination of in-house studios, networks and distribution companies have all enjoyed tremendous success with the form. It was never so much a question of whether we might take this next step and launch a dedicated reality channel. It was only a matter of when."

Fox Reality Channel will target young adults, who tend to be especially strong supporters of the reality genre. The new network will also have access to Twentieth Television, Fox Television Stations, Fox Cable Networks and 20th Century Fox Television Distribution product.

Fox has positioned its studio operations like 20th Century Fox Television (and its new boutique Fox 21) and Fox Television Studios as producers of original reality fare, while Fox Television Studios' international unit Fox World specializes in original international adaptations of top reality series. In addition, Fox Reality Channel will benefit from relationships with key international programmers like Asia's STAR-TV and Europe's BSkyB, which are both subsidiaries of Fox owner News Corporation, for still other off-network series and original U.S. adaptations -- making it unlikely that Reality Central will end up partnering with those companies and eliminating some potential programming outlets that Reality Central had planned to mine.

Fox's announcement certainly doesn't mean that Reality Central will be shut out of the rebroadcast rights market however. In addition to numerous other independent international production companies, American reality TV producers such as Mark Burnett, the brains behind Survivor and The Apprentice, have not yet committed to permit repeats of their programming to be aired by any cable outlet. Were Reality Central to win the rights to such programming -- which would presumably require a monumental increase to its current licensing budget -- it would have a credible base to challenge Fox Reality Channel ... and Fox's decision to steal reality show concepts by the barrelful may make these producers wary of ceding too much clout to the company's reality arm.

Additionally, Fox Reality Channel and Reality Central are not the only outlets for reality shows. In addition to GSN and well-known reality pioneer MTV, E! Networks has announced several new reality shows. Plus, both NBC's Bravo and the A&E network have become much more reality-oriented, the ABC Family Channel has aired several reality projects, and TBS has also been moving aggressively into the space.

It's worth noting that the market for 24-hour cable news networks, which for a long time was presumed to be one (CNN), has instead grown to support three (Fox News and MSNBC, in addition to CNN). Thus one certainly can't say that the planned launch of Fox Reality Channel dooms the hopes of Reality Central ... but when coupled with the spread of reality TV to other cable networks, the development may well sound the death knell of the scrappy start-up effort that was initially funded by the prize winnings of several early reality show contestants.

According to the Associated Press, upon being informed of Fox's plans, Larry Nemur, the co-founder of Reality Central (as well as of E! Entertainment, the 80's cable start-up upon which Reality Central is in many ways basing its model), claimed that Fox had stolen his company's idea, the same way that it steals reality programming. "When you get a validation from one of the big media conglomerates, it's flattering," said Nemur.

Flattering, perhaps. But it also may be flattening ... for Reality Central, that is. We have a feeling that the people affiliated with Reality Central, ranging from the ex-reality star investors to COO Blake Mycoskie of The Amazing Race 2 fame, heard a shoe drop today. Now they are just waiting for the other one.

More interestingly, we note that in August 2002, almost a year prior to the "creation" of Reality Central by Larry Nemur and Blake Mycoskie, Fox publicly discussed its plans to create a U.S. 24/7 reality TV network named Fox Reality Channel, which would be launched as both a digital-tier cable network and a satellite network "by 2005 at the latest." In other words, Fox is simply following through on its original plan, and the real copycat here is not Fox -- for once -- but rather Reality Central.

We wonder if Fox execs felt flattered when Reality Central was announced.

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