Viewers Flocking to NBC's Reality
Both are delivering strong ratings. NBC has already decided to run "Spy TV" twice a week and is considering keeping both shows on the air after their summer runs are complete.
"You can't ignore these kinds of numbers," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker on Wednesday. "You can't ignore these viewers. It's telling you something."
"Spy TV" was the most-watched show in NBC's usually potent Thursday night lineup with its debut last week. It was the week's most popular show among viewers aged 18 to 49 on all networks. NBC will rerun each week's episode the following Tuesday.
In its third week, "Fear Factor" had its best showing Monday with 11.1 million viewers. NBC topped its rivals in a time slot where it usually struggles.
"Spy TV" has been described as a vindictive "Candid Camera," where in one stunt an unsuspecting motorist was taken on a hair-raising test drive. Contestants on the "Fear Factor" game compete in stomach-churning events, seeing how they can survive, for example, getting nibbled on by hundreds of rats.
Critics have been unusually vituperative.
The Washington Post's John Maynard called it NBC's "summer of sadism."
USA Today's Robert Bianco said that "a network that can air `Fear Factor' and `Spy TV' in the same summer has clearly lost its sense of shame."
Wrote The Associated Press' Lynn Elber: "Trying to catch up with CBS' runaway `Survivor' success, the network is tossing any bit of mud at the screen and hoping it will stick. Besides `Spy TV,' `Fear Factor' and `Weakest Link' are part of NBC's `must-flinch' lineup."
Not surprisingly, Zucker doesn't think much of the criticism.
"Last year we were bashed for not being in the reality game," he said. "This year we're bashed for being in the reality game in a way that people don't like. What that fails to recognize in my mind is that the audience likes it."
NBC is doing better with these shows among viewers under age 35 than it has in years, he said.
A new generation of television viewers that grew up on MTV and ESPN expects an alternative form of programming to scripted comedies and dramas, he said.
"The audience has moved much more quickly to tell us what they want and like than the people who are used to the traditional kind of television," Zucker said.
Zucker, the former "Today" show executive producer named NBC entertainment president last December, owes his job in part to reality TV. NBC's owners were angry that CBS, with "Survivor," and ABC, with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," beat NBC to the punch in this genre.
Within six months, Zucker has put "Spy TV," "Fear Factor" and the game show "Weakest Link" on the air.
He rejected any suggestion that the shows undermine the image, carefully cultivated by NBC executives, that it is the network of quality because of shows like "The West Wing," "Frasier" and "ER."
"None of these programs replaced any of the programs that defined NBC, the quality programs," he said. "We cannot afford, financially especially, to have 22 hours of 'The West Wing' on our air."
Besides, he thinks "Spy TV" is funny.
"I sit in my kitchen and watch 'Spy TV' and laugh," he said. "That's what I go by."