Cable Powerhouses Seek Reality Networks

In one corner, the FOX television empire. In another, cable executives who once ran the USA network and E! Entertainment Television (search). They're fighting to see who can establish a television network devoted exclusively to the reality genre.

Maybe both will win. Maybe neither.

Viewers won't be able to see Reality 24-7 (search) until later this year, or the FOX Reality Channel (search) until early 2005. Both networks are already developing and acquiring programming.

"Reality and reality stars have become the chatter of pop culture," said Larry Namer, the former E! executive who is partner with USA founder Kay Koplovitz in Reality 24-7. (It recently changed its name from Reality Central.)

With shows like "Survivor" (search) and "American Idol" (search) among TV's biggest hits, it was inevitable that someone would devote a network to reality. The question is whether people will want to revisit their favorite reality shows like they do comedies and dramas.

When Namer agreed to a meeting with Blake Mycoskie, a loser in CBS' "The Amazing Race," he wondered if it wasn't someone trying to stretch his 15 minutes of fame. But Mycoskie was serious about wanting to start a reality channel, and raised $500,000 from fellow reality contestants to invest in it.

Namer envisions Reality 24-7 as a destination for fans of the genre. He helped create "Talk Soup," an E! program that distilled memorable moments of talk shows, and plans to do the same for reality.

Half of the network's programming would be gossip about personalities, "making of" and "where are they now?" features.

If the network were to show a "Survivor" episode, for example, it would be packaged like a DVD with extras, like Richard Hatch (search) commenting on why he acted a certain way. Hatch is an investor and one of 120 reality stars who have signed contracts to participate in Reality 24-7 programming, he said.

"You will never see us just take a reality show and rerun it," Namer said. "We are not about reruns."

His network has also bought the rights to foreign-produced shows "Villa," a show based in the south of France that crosses "Real World" with "Sex and the City" (search); and "Strip Search," an Australian show with men who compete to form their own burlesque revue.

Namer derides his rival as little more than a vehicle to run old FOX series and earn money from commercials.

Anthony Vinciquerra doesn't talk trash like Namer. But after hearing his rival claim that FOX Reality stole his idea, the FOX Networks Group president cites a date: April 11, 2002. That's when he brought his executives in to brainstorm ideas about new networks, and FOX Reality was born.

FOX and its related studios have plenty of programming to choose from, including "The Simple Life" (search) and "Joe Millionaire." Old FOX series such as celebrity boxing and "When Animals Attack" are on the shelves, ready to be dusted off.

FOX-affiliated companies operate all over the world; Vinciquerra has access to a dozen versions of "Temptation Island" from different countries, he said.

Many reality series draw strength from being serials, leaving those in the industry to wonder how much interest there will be in "American Idol" reruns, for instance, when everybody knows who won.

"The only way we're going to disprove that is to do it," Vinciquerra said.

FOX Reality has no chief executive yet and few other details about its programming strategy in place.

GSN, formerly known as the Game Show Network, has been running a handful of reality series over the past year to change its image. "Dog Eat Dog" has done well, but serialized shows like "Average Joe" and "The Mole" are poor ratings performers, said Rich Cronin, GSN president.

That's why there was a bidding war between GSN and FX for rights to show "Fear Factor" reruns (FX won), illustrating another problem for the fledgling reality networks. They're not the only ones who will be competing to air this material.

"Certainly reality is a very hot genre right now," Cronin said. "The question is whether a 24-7 reality channel is something the cable operators and viewers want."

Establishing a network involves methodically trying to persuade dozens of cable and satellite providers across the country to carry your signal. It's a hurdle that most entrepreneurs can't clear.

"Kay and Namer have a good year's head start on building a brand name," said Larry Gerbrandt, a media analyst for AlixPartners LLC. "Koplovitz is a legend in cable programming. She goes back to almost day one and spent most of her career building the USA network. She knows all the players and cable is the ultimate relationship business."

Despite those assets, FOX Reality has the edge, he said.

FOX's parent, News Corp., owns Direct TV, so it's likely that satellite provider will offer FOX Reality from its beginning. News Corp. is a behemoth in the industry, with a formidable track record of starting successful networks like the National Geographic Channel, Fuel and the Speed Channel.

"I think it gives us a pretty good advantage," Vinciquerra said.

While FOX's huge library of reality material also gives FOX Reality a step up, News Corp.'s size may work against it in acquiring other material. CBS or NBC, for instance, might be reluctant to sell rights to its series to a competitor.

Namer is looking to play a David vs. Goliath card in making his case.

"The cable industry needs strong independents out there to keep the game honest," he said. "Innovation and creativity tends to come out of independents instead of huge factories of channels."

News Corp. is the parent company of the Fox News Channel, which operates