Jonathan Storm | Putting on summer duds

As cable sports some handsome scripted series, the rest of the season is strewn with the dirty and tattered laundry of reality shows.

Posted: June 24, 2007

It's enough to make a critic - or anybody else who makes less than $1 million a year - cry.

Big-bucks TV programmers are proving themselves to be stupider than the average-Joe viewer. Dumb phony reality shows clutter the airwaves, and, in most cases, nobody's watching.

I'm crying more than you, though, because you're simply turning off 90 percent of the "new" garbage that's hitting the screens this summer. I'm supposed to sit there and watch it.

Tuesday, ABC sends Shaquille O'Neal out to exploit overweight kids in one of the most unentertaining shows ever. Last week, NBC's Age of Love, pitting women in their 40s against a lineup of twentysomethings in a contest for the love of a washed-up tennis pro, sent shivers of disgust up my spine.

Bravo, once a culture club, now a depository of depraved reality, tackles another canard, going inside the life of half-baked celebrity Paula Abdul, beginning Thursday at 10. Even in the heightened phoniness of reality TV, one character trait squirms out above all others: She's insipid.

Last night's Style Network lineup included the premiere of the second season of Split Ends, following the age-old phony reality trading-places blueprint. High-end stylists from swanky cities (L.A. last night) swap into downscale joints in the boondocks, while the rubes try to make it in the big time. In a fine example of TV's tunnel vision, Las Vegas got to represent small-town America.

Phony reality shows have been a cable staple, and they still are. But this summer, cable and the big networks are turning things upside down. Selected scripted comedies and dramas on cable are actually drawing more viewers than the schlock on the broadcast networks. TBS, TNT, USA and Lifetime are scoring some of their biggest numbers ever, and overall the big networks' share of the pie has never been smaller.

In the week ended last Sunday, which provides the most recent Nielsen ratings numbers available, fewer than one-third of TV users watched the five English-language broadcast networks.

And that was before the season premiere of The Closer Monday on TNT. Viewed in 6.3 million households, it would have finished in the Top 10 among all TV shows in the previous week, and was the highest-rated series episode on ad-supported cable ever. TBS's House of Payne premiered June 6 with the highest sitcom ratings in ad-cable history. Army Wives is the highest-rated series in Lifetime's history. The Starter Wife was USA's highest-rated original drama in three years.

Cable has a raft of sizzling series scripts and actors waiting in the wings: Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo in The Kill Point on Spike, Lili Taylor in State of Mind on Lifetime, Glenn Close in Damages on FX, Holly Hunter in Saving Grace on TNT, David Duchovny in Showtime's Californication.

A handful of successful (a term to be used loosely) network reality shows have returned to TV in recent weeks. Most are bald copies of ones that struck ratings gold during colder months. NBC's America's Got Talent, featuring weekly hissy fits from judges Sharon Osborne and David Hasselhoff, is a different take on American Idol. Fox's So You Think You Can Dance mimics Dancing With the Stars.

That show, which premiered in June 2005, was ABC's biggest hit in the regular season that ended last month, a giant moneymaker that surpassed Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. And it is one reason we are being barraged with big-network trash this summer.

Everybody hopes to strike gold.

But, like summertime's Survivor before it and even the rancid Big Brother back in the day, Dancing With the Stars was a fresh concept. There's nothing new this year. Pirate Master, stolen from Survivor, is shivering nobody's timbers on CBS. Eleven Spanish-language shows on Univision had higher numbers in the week of June 11 than ABC's National Bingo Night, which copies TV shows from the 1950s. Dieciocho (that's 18) producciones en espaƱol beat Fox's movie-maker competition dud On the Lot, stolen from HBO's Project Greenlight.

None of those shows is as ill-conceived as ABC's Shaq-a-thon, a steal from NBC's The Biggest Loser, with a thoroughly unappetizing twist. No question, it targets a worthy cause: childhood obesity, a national dilemma and a cause of personal trauma in millions of lives.

The problem perplexes the greatest health experts, but O'Neal's going to conquer it with a reality show on TV, where thousands of ads every month glorify gluttony and awful nutrition. "Shaquille has just six months to change the future and save a generation," crows the announcer on Shaq's Big Challenge, premiering at 9 Tuesday.

He'll do it by humiliating a group of obese kids and adolescents who have no idea what this sort of exposure may do for their real lives.

One 280-pounder acknowledges he's already ridiculed as "Pizza Face" by his schoolmates because of his bad "acme." Wonder what those kids will do after they hear him say that, and a physician label him "infantile"?

Hey Paula premieres Thursday at 10 on Bravo. In the first episode, she has to take the red-eye after the Grammys from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, the black swamp of air travel. Just what frequent fliers are dying to see.

She's here to hawk her collection of cheap jewelry on shopping channel QVC. Along the way, one of her four teeny dogs tries to swallow a ring, and Abdul berates an assistant for packing her black tennis shoes instead of her white ones.

Hey, Paula, I don't want to marry you.

As June melts into July, there's plenty more where that came from. Burnt-out teen stars Corey Haim and Corey Feldman will stir their ashes on A&E. Geeks make fools of themselves trying to land a role as a superhero on Sci Fi. Lifeguards preen and try to save Court TV (maybe it's the tennis court) from drowning, and if that doesn't help, the network has a troupe of female bounty hunters coming in August.

Skilled at bagging the bad guys, they may find it's a lot tougher to round up viewers.


To comment on this article, go to: http://go.philly.com/askstorm. Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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