''Survivor 3,'' ''Big Brother 2,'' and other reality shows suddenly seem less real after America's crisis
Tina Wesson
Credit: Tina Wesson: Monty Brinton/CBS

Although ”Survivor 3” doesn’t premiere until Oct. 11, there’s already plenty of buzz about the latest batch of larvae-chewing castaways. But instead of wondering who will follow in Tina’s savvy footsteps, many are asking whether reality TV makes sense following the tragic events of last week. (Read EW critic Bruce Fretts’ opinion). Even TV execs are realizing that the pop culture climate has been changed, perhaps forever. ”I think calling these shows ‘reality’ is now a misnomer,” admits NBC Executive VP of Alternative Series Jeff Gaspin. ”What we saw [during the attacks] last week was reality TV, unfortunately. We should simply change what we used to call ‘reality’ to unscripted drama or comedy.”

But no matter what you call them, shows like CBS’ ”Survivor 3,” ”Big Brother 2,” and ”The Amazing Race,” NBC’s ”Lost” and ”Fear Factor,” and ABC’s ”The Mole” may force audiences to take a closer look at the fuzzy line between entertainment and reality. ”It once seemed like ‘Survivor’ was very real and very gritty, as when Michael burned himself last season,” says Mediaweek analyst Marc Berman. ”But now it has to be viewed as entertainment. Even ‘Fear Factor’ seems a little ridiculous now, a little tasteless.” Counters Gaspin: ”Eating bugs is gross, but what we saw is a terrible tragedy. There’s no comparison to me.”

The networks face the challenge of convincing viewers to sympathize with contestants whose actions may now seem more annoying than intriguing. ”What the incident did in New York was make the city stand as one,” Berman points out. ”In real life people need to unite right now and not stab each other in the back. So watching people hiding beef jerky from one another seems very frivolous.” He also notes that the timing of the attack, which bumped new shows ”Lost” and ”Amazing Race” off the air temporarily, will likely cause both programs to lose some much-needed momentum. ”Lost” has yet to return to the NBC schedule, while ”Amazing Race” dropped 9 percent in the ratings in its second airing on Wednesday night.

Not all reality TV is created equal, however. Shows that emphasize relationships, like Fox’s ”Love Cruise” (which debuts Sept. 25), may seem more lighthearted and amusing to audiences burnt out on hard news. ”With ‘Love Cruise,’ you’re not dealing with death-defying stunts,” points out Fox spokesman Scott Grogin, who says the network is still deciding what will be appropriate reality programming once the new TV season is up and running. ”It’s more of a human interaction show, an unscripted drama.”

Berman agrees that when it comes to future reality TV, light is right. ”Stuff like ‘Temptation Island’ will work because it’s fluff,” he says. ”It’s not like they’re starving to win.” What’s more, media analyst Paul Schulman of Advanswers PHD believes many viewers will crave these types of reality shows. ”It’s still a release, it’s still enjoyment, and it’s a distraction from the problems of everyday life,” says Schulman. ”No matter what, people still want to be entertained.” That thought seems borne out by Tuesday night’s ”Big Brother 2” ratings, which topped rival ”Frasier” by 3 percent.

Still, after two years of hype, the reality trend may finally be on the wane no matter what happens in the news. ”Don’t forget, even if none of this had happened, there’s too much reality TV on now, period,” says Berman. ”The novelty has worn off.” In other words: Jeff Probst, prepare to update your résumé.