Military Reality Shows Battle in Prime Time
NEW YORK – America's fascination with the military has surged since the war on terror began, and TV producers aren't missing a beat as military shows, or "militainment," bombard the airwaves.
Several new shows like CBS's AFP: American Fighter Pilot and VH1's Military Diaries are set to battle for the high ratings that ripped-from-the-headlines favorite JAG already scores.
"The world changed after September 11 and that change included, to a certain degree, what viewers want to see on television," said Chris Ender, senior vice president for communications at CBS. "An interest in the military and patriotic themes is quite high now."
CBS's military justice program JAG has shot up from No. 28 in prime time ratings last year to No. 10 this year.
On the heels of JAG's success, the network recently released AFP: American Fighter Pilot, a reality show that follows three top gun wannabes through F-15 training.
"The show takes viewers into a world they don't often see: the highly secretive training process to become a fighter pilot," said Ender. "The show not only has the hardware like planes and the technology, it tells the story about what pilots go through in their personal and professional lives throughout the course of a training program."
But some media experts aren't optimistic about the newly popular genre of shows.
"I think these military reality shows are all going to be short-lived," said Marc Berman, TV analyst at MediaWeek. "You watch the news every day and hear about what's going on so why would you want to watch this in prime time? Viewers want escapism."
Indeed, AFP seems to have crashed on takeoff. Only 4.9 million viewers tuned in for its premiere episode, compared to 14.2 million who watched Baby Bob, a new series about a talking baby.
However, industry types are encouraged by JAG's success but attribute its allure to more than just the military theme. Donald P. Bellisario, creator and executive producer of the show, said it succeeds where military reality doesn't because of the characters and the drama.
"You need stories that interest viewers, take some dramatic licenses and have characters that people care about," he said.
Producers of these shows work with the Pentagon and military members to attain permission for shoots, get guidance with scripts to make them realistic and, in the case of AFP, make sure they don't jeopardize national security.
"We work with a retired navy admiral and a retired JAG (Judge Advocate General)," Bellisario said.
Another highly anticipated program that received support from the Pentagon is Profiles From the Front Line, a reality series currently in production for ABC, created by Black Hawk Down producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
The show will film real battlefields around the globe with U.S. troops telling their personal stories.
"I think this is an important show to make in order to salute our military," Bruckheimer said in a statement. "This is going to be a very visual reality show with a strong patriotic message."
While AFP, JAG and Profiles hope to capture the heart and soul of the troops, Combat Missions pits ex-militia against each other a la Survivor in grueling team competition.
Produced by Mark Burnett — the father of Survivor — this USA Network program features teams of special operations veterans assembled in a secret desert location to compete in training exercises and combat missions for a $250,000 prize.
Another new program called Military Diaries, which will debut on VH1 this spring, chronicles the lives of music fans from all the armed forces branches. They were given video cameras to record daily video diaries during down time and training exercises.
"We've assembled some amazing footage filmed by the military individuals and not by our film crews — the first time ever that footage of this kind has been shot by the actual military themselves," Fred Graver, executive vice president of programming and production for VH1, said in a statement.
Hollywood is betting that all the recent flag waving in America will translate into viewers for these patriotic "militainment" shows, but Berman said they had better pack their programs with some substance to go along with the uniforms.
Robert De Niro's 9-11 was an incredible documentary, but that was one event, he said. "I think viewers are interested in shows that bring a new perspective to the screen and entertain. But they are not actually looking for military shows in particular."