The fear factor sets in as reality shows become a thing of the past
Survivor: Africa
Credit: Survivor: Monty Brinton/CBS

Not long after Sept. 11, Bruce Nash, producer of such groundbreaking diversions as ”When Good Pets Go Bad,” was preparing to tape ”The Glutton Bowl: The World’s Greatest Eating Competition” for Fox. The mood was somber. ”A lot of the competitive eaters were from the New York area,” he remembers. ”I put up a giant American flag. I played ‘God Bless America’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ And then for the next two days all of us had a good time.”

That’s all very well for the bingeing masses, but make no mistake: A purge is coming to reality TV. An Oct. 10 poll by Initiative Media claims 83 percent of Americans are ”less interested” in reality programming since the attacks. Ratings are down for both proven fare (”Friends” beat ”Survivor: Africa”? Unthinkable!) and upstarts like CBS’ ”The Amazing Race” and Fox’s ”Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage.” And on Oct. 19, ABC benched its real-life manhunt ”The Runner”.

But long before Sept. 11, the genre was losing its immunity idol. The heavily hyped ”Amazing Race” kicked off Sept. 5 with 11.8 million viewers and a 13 share. ”Everyone was expecting a 19 or a 21, minimum,” says one rival network exec. Even ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and ”Weakest Link” are no longer top 10 staples.

Why is the genre on the ropes? Most industry insiders blame oversaturation that came when a white-hot trend coincided with a network buying frenzy — on the eve of a threatened strike by writers and actors. Poor scheduling hasn’t helped: How many advertiser-coveted young adults stayed home Friday nights to watch ABC’s just-yanked ”Mole 2”?