they were here!!
When a female contestant on a new US prime time TV reality programme recently confessed to being in love with another man on her wedding day - in front of her stunned husband and more than 8m viewers - network executives at Fox knew they had a hit on their hands.
The Moment of Truth has a simple, if uncomfortable premise. Contestants first take a lie detector test, being asked a series of highly personal questions, and are then asked the same questions again in front of friends, family and television viewers. If they answer truthfully, they can win up to $500,000.
The programme has drawn criticism for its content but its popularity with viewers ensured it became one of the few new shows aired since January to be recommissioned for a second series. Fox ordered a new batch of episodes, the first of which aired last night.
"Reality gets ratings in key demographics that you don't get in a lot of other shows," says Howard Schultz, chief executive of Lighthearted Entertainment, which produces and owns the show.
The programme has been sold to more than 50 countries by Lighthearted and is the latest example of the mushrooming popularity of the reality genre.
Reality TV is not a new phenomenon, with programmes such as Big Brother and The Apprentice regular fixtures on schedules in the US and Europe.
But since January there has been a marked increase in the number of reality shows in coveted US prime-time slots as networks adapt to a rapidly shifting economic landscape and the effects of the three-month writers' strike, which ended in February.
The strike hit the production of drama and comedy programmes, forcing the networks to look for alternative content. Cheap, quick to produce and, more importantly, popular with younger viewers, reality shows filled the gap. With more reality programming than its rivals, Fox was the top performing network during the September-May broadcasting season.
Some series were hit particularly hard by the strike, with ratings for ABC's Grey's Anatomy and CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation taking hefty knocks. Although production schedules have returned to normal since the strike finished, the big four networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - did not rush to pack the upcoming autumn season with new scripted programming.
For example, ABC has commissioned only one new drama for autumn - an adaptation of the BBC's Life on Mars - while its other new programme is a game show. It is relying on the recommissioned series of scripted shows it launched last year, such as Pushing Daisies , to attract audiences.
NBC, meanwhile, will premiere eight new programmes in its summer schedule to build up to the Olympics, which it will broadcast in the US. Of those eight, seven are reality shows, including American Gladiators and Nashville Star : only Fear Itself is scripted.
Before making The Moment of Truth, Lighthearted had scored a global hit with Extreme Makeover , a reality show sold to more than 100 countries that offered lifestyle training and plastic surgery to women unhappy with their appearance. "It's difficult to get the 18-34 [demographic], which advertisers want. The networks don't seem to care about older audiences . . . we tend to make edgier fare, which negates the older audiences."
Other factors also explain why reality programming holds great appeal for the networks. Scripted shows are expensive to produce and can cost $3m for a one-hour show compared with less than $1m for a typical reality programme. Television advertising generates vast amounts of money, with about $9bn spent by advertisers last year in the US. But the market is fragmenting and facing competition from rival media, such as the internet.
"We have this fight over advertising dollars, which are drifting away to other platforms," says Mr Schultz. "Networks are making less money from advertising, which means they have to pay less for their programming."
Rob Lee, head of programming at IMG, which produces Make Me a Supermodel for Bravo, the US cable channel owned by NBC, agrees with Mr Schultz that reality TV is in the ascendancy. "The economic model for scripted shows is broken," he says. He argues that scripted entertainment has been driven to cable channels, which can support the higher cost of production because they have additional revenue streams, namely, from their subscribers.
But not everyone is writing off scripted programming on the main networks. Media Rights Capital, a new company backed by Goldman Sachs and WPP, has struck deals to make several scripted shows for the big networks, including The Goode Family on ABC and Outnumbered on Fox.
Modi Wiczyk, co-chairman of MRC, expects more dramas and comedies to return to screens before the end of the year as the networks and studios absorb the effect of the writers' strike. "Reality doesn't have the same lead-up time [as scripted programming]. If you need to adjust on the fly to a f orce majeure situation like a strike, you can make a reality show more quickly," he says.
"People have been bemoaning the death of scripted for years," he adds. "But it never goes away."
MRC recently struck a deal with ShineReveille, the TV distribution company controlled by Elizabeth Murdoch, to sell scripted and unscripted programmes to international buyers. "Audiences have an appetite for both," says Chris Grant, president of ShineReveille International. He cites current uncertainty about a possible strike by actors in the summer as another factor depressing the production of scripted shows.
"I don't think Hollywood is ready for another strike but it will weigh on the thinking [of the networks]. It's the reason for the surge in reality but there will be a resurgence in scripted programming," he says.
But for Mr Schultz, reality TV is more cost-effective. It does not represent the "big bet" of an expensive drama that might pay off in spectacular style if it becomes a hit. "Reality has stayed away from these big bets," he says, adding that networks like the genre because it is stable and more likely to make a profit.
Break with tradition on pilots and seasons
All four big US television networks used to invest heavily in scripted pilots - one-off episodes that allow executives and advertisers to assess a particular programme or idea before deciding whether to commission a full series.
But the industry is now divided over whether pilots represent value for money. The four networks spend about $500m each year on pilots that often fail to yield successful series.
Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, has pledged to cut the number produced by NBC from about 20 to five. "We're focused on pushing up more projects straight to series," says Mitch Metcalf, head of scheduling at NBC. "We need to control costs. There just isn't that margin for waste any more."
In another break with tradition, NBC is introducing new programming throughout the year, instead of only during the traditional broadcasting "season", which runs from September to May.
This summer, NBC is launching several new shows, mostly in the reality genre. "We are increasingly looking at the summer as 52 weeks long, with summer just happening to be the epicentre of reality programming," says Mr Metcalf. "There are more distractions for scripted series [in the summer] but people are in the mood for lighter entertainment, which reality delivers so well."