Not only have new entries like NBC's "Three Wishes" and Martha Stewart's version of "The Apprentice" underwhelmed (Martha's "Apprentice" won't return for a second season), even established franchises like "Survivor" have shown clear signs of audience erosion.
Still, reality TV is here to stay. As history has shown time and again, the TV business is cyclical. When reality TV started to explode just as primetime linchpins like "Frasier" and "Friends" were put to bed, naysayers nattered about the end of comedy. Well, if the early returns on the fall season are any indication, comedies are back, as some of the most promising fare includes "My Name Is Earl" and "Everybody Hates Chris."
Apparently, it only takes a few original ideas to reanimate the corpse.
The debate over the demise of reality TV aside, one new reality that brands can't ignore is the ever-expanding wireless world. Two-thirds of Americans now own cell phones, the digital equivalent of the multipurpose Swiss Army Knife. Cells can make calls, send text messages, take photos, play MP3s, and now receive full-motion video. Earlier this summer, Nokia, the Finnish handset manufacturer, reported that 50 million-plus consumers globally have wireless phones capable of video streaming.
The low-hanging fruit in this new harvest of mobile programming is the repurposing of existing short-form content. Fremantle Media, a producer of the global juggernaut that is "Pop Idol" ("American Idol" on these shores), provides "Baywatch" scenes on the aptly named Thumbdance Channel, a wireless network. Imagine the cross-platform opportunities for "Idol" sponsors like Coca-Cola to tap into the mobile platform by repurposing snippets of the original Fox airing. The puny aspect ratios of cell phone screens and the short attention span of consumers on the go would seem to preclude long-form viewing, but that isn't necessarily the case. Endemol has had great success in the Netherlands by streaming its reality hit "Big Brother." People are already talking about an alternative "nano network," and wireless promoters have created catchy new jargon: 3G (third-generation) networks, or Vcasts, as in video casts.
The endgame for brands, beyond sponsoring existing content, would be to partner with TV producers to create original video content for wireless phones, which is already happening. Fox is starting to offer one-minute episodes of "24."
Players on the content side have intimated that the biggest challenge in the U.S. is getting phone networks like Sprint and Verizon on board. One producer, who requested anonymity, said the "softly, softly" approach of waiting for wireless networks to embrace branded content should be abandoned, and that conversations with brands should accelerate on their own.
Traditional narrative storytelling isn't the only potential play for advertisers in the wireless realm. Brands are integrating themselves into console and pc-based videogames. Branded deals on wireless would be a natural evolution.
Currently, it's estimated that some 60 million-plus wireless customers in the U.S. (35 percent of the total) play games on their phones. While most of these are prepaid, pre-installed games, consumers are starting to cough up cash for stand-alone wireless games. The Yankee Group recently estimated that revenue from cell phone gaming in the U.S. will reach $1 billion in 2009.
Apple's unveiling of the iPod video player is another harbinger. Its real genius, though, is not the technology but the deal that was done with Disney to run primetime TV programming for $1.99 an episode. There is the big screen, the small screen -- and now the nano screen. If the Apple/Disney deal means anything, it's this: A new medium, like the Internet in its infancy, is being taken very seriously by the top players, including sponsors.
So that drunken fool who said the 30-second TV ad is dead should sober up. It ain't dead. It just has a new address.
Hank Kim and Richard Linnett are directors at MPG Entertainment. (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)