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NEW YORK – Can a zebra change its stripes?
Not likely. But these days numerous reality-based networks are sporting new stripes in the form of scripted fare as they move to stretch their brand and freshen their look.
— TruTV last month added several scripted series to the mix, including the sketch-comedy show "Friends of the People" (airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST).
— Animal Planet is in the scripted swim with "The Whale: Revenge From the Deep," a drama special premiering Nov. 26 starring Martin Sheen. This isn't the network's first scripted program (maybe you recall "Mermaids" a few years ago), but now it's poised to go even further with scripted series as well: An adaptation of the popular zombie animal graphic novel "The Other Dead" is targeted for early 2016.
— Dec. 2 marks the premiere of "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," Bravo's first original scripted series, with stars including Lisa Edelstein ("House") and Paul Adelstein ("Private Practice"). It will be followed next year by a half-hour comedy "Odd Mom Out."
— E! has announced its first scripted drama series, "The Royals," exposing "the upstairs and downstairs lives of a fictional royal family set in modern day London," according to the network. It premieres in March.
— WeTV dipped its toe into scripted series this summer with its legal drama "The Divide."
— SundanceTV launched its first drama series, "Rectify," last year, with several others airing since.
— History successfully entered scripted television two years ago with "The Vikings," then struck more ratings gold with its "Hatfields & McCoys" and "The Bible" miniseries.
Summing up: One way for a network to secure its turf is by advancing into others'.
It's a logical response to the battle that niche networks now find themselves waging, says Bravo's senior vice president of development, Lara Spotts, who speaks of "a 'Hunger Games-ian' environment. There are so many choices for viewers that you have to find new ways to deal with your rivals."
Marjorie Kaplan, who as Discovery group president oversees Animal Planet, agrees: "When you look at the creative landscape and you see the audience's interest in scripted, you can't NOT ask yourself, 'Is there something we could be doing there?'"
Not only does scripted represent a promised land for boosting audience interest, it's also bursting with creativity at a moment when reality is, by comparison, "a little bit dull, a little bit stagnant," says truTV's president and programming boss, Chris Linn.
"There has been such a renaissance with scripted content: new worlds, larger casts, more complex characters, nonlinear storytelling," Linn says. "It has shaken things up in a way that has grabbed the audience's attention and raised the bar for what is a satisfying experience in watching television."
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but capturing truth on camera — and making it look real — is often easier in a fictional form.
"You can really up the ante and up the fun in ways you can't always do with reality," says Jeff Olde, E!'s executive vice president of programming and development. E! specializes in celebrity and glamour, and its audience demands ever more access to those luminaries — the sort of access that would be off-limits from Britain's real-life royals, but, with actors subbing for them, will be guaranteed in the forthcoming scripted "The Royals."
"With scripted," says Olde, "no one says 'No.'"
Of course, the oft-cited divide separating reality from scripted may be a false distinction, at least in the minds of viewers, who are largely savvy to the staging, scripting and editing that make some reality programs less than real.
"We have found that assumptions we had about the boundaries between reality and scripted were never really boundaries for the audience," says Animal Planet executive vice president Rick Holzman. "They were the boxes we created in our heads."
"Viewers move effortlessly between those two worlds," says E!'s Olde. "You're seeing those walls come down more and more, which probably explains why a number of different networks are looking to get into unscripted."
Each network's challenge to find new ways to give the audience what they came for in the first place — entertainment — has become a strong incentive not to be so hung up on genres, especially when scripted can be more authentic, more real, than reality TV sometimes allows.
This doesn't signal an identity crisis for any of these networks, nor is any of them disavowing the reality programming that remains their bread and butter. But it's a notable encroachment into prime real estate.
"This is a radical shift for us in a new direction," says TruTV's Linn. "But there's so much shifting in the landscape right now. Old rules don't apply."