The fear factor sets in as reality-TV ratings head south

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 (recent EW/AOL poll results reflect a similar sentiment). 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?

”[Reality] seemed to be a magic bullet,” says NBC programming exec Jeff Gaspin, whose network pitted Lost against Race and watched both sink. ”The audience is figuring out that it’s like any other television genre. If everyone is expecting reality shows to shoot to the top 10 for half the price of scripted shows, yeah, that balloon has been deflated.”

But lowered expectations don’t mean the networks are abandoning reality shows altogether. After all, Race posts better demographics than the movies CBS aired in its Wednesday time slot last year. And since game shows like Weakest Link cost only $500,000 per episode to produce (compared with the $9 million NBC pays for one hour of ER), Gaspin notes, ”The economics of it are incredible — it can sustain a lower rating.”

As for Survivor, CBS doesn’t seem distressed by the show’s slowing — but still strong — momentum. ”Eventually, any show has to cool down,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS executive VP of program planning. ”But if we’re cooling down to 20 million viewers, that’s a great place to cool down to.”

Even so, some reality series in development pre-9/11 have been voted out of the tribe. Gone is a show in which contestants would goof around in an airplane. So, too, is one challenging average folks to break into L.A.’s Getty Museum — without telling the guards. ”We usually stop at felonies,” says LMNO Productions CEO Eric Schotz, who was approached by a major network to produce the latter show. The Glutton Bowl, however, will probably air by the end of the year.