The explosion in "reality," "non- fiction" or "unscripted" programming -- whatever you want to call it -- is no passing fad.

The huge ratings and watercooler conversation being generated by American Idol, Joe Millionaire and Survivor has fueled the rise of a new generation of industry stars -- from the swashbuckling producers who come up with the ideas to the network executives who decide whether they're fit for primetime.

"When I was doing it years ago, reality television was kind of like the bastard child of the business -- now it's the darling," says profilic producer Bruce Nash, the man behind Meet My Folks, Before They Were Stars and countless others.

Nash was once the guy who produced quickie, video-clip shows of police chases and circus animals run amock to fill weak time periods, particularly on Fox.

Today, though, he's one of a growing number of producers vying to fill an increasing number of prime-time hours on all the networks.

Last week, for example, reality-TV shows accounted for nearly 20 percent of prime-time hours on all six broadcast networks, according to an informal Post audit.

The growing demand has unleashed an intense competition among top producers to develop ideas, win face time with network reality execs and then produce their shows on increasingly tight schedules.

"The bar keeps getting raised all the time," says Jean-Michel Michenaud, producing partner with Chris Cowan in the Fox hit Joe Millionaire.

"You feel like you you're only as good as your last five minutes," Michenaud says.