ABC binges on reality shows. The network that drove ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' into the ground plans four unscripted shows this winter and six more in the summer

By Gary Susman
January 16, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Is ABC going back to the reality well too often? At the Television Critics Association previews in Hollywood on Wednesday, the network that’s seen its sagging ratings revive with ”The Bachelor,” ”The Bachelorette,” and ”Extreme Makeover” announced that it’s loading up Wednesdays and Thursdays with reality programs this winter, with six more new unscripted shows coming in the summer. If that sounds like a cheap, quick fix to you, you’re not alone. ”We have conversations all the time about the fact that this reality craze can be like crack for network executives,” ABC entertainment president Susan Lyne told reporters. ”And you have to be incredibly careful not to extend the number of time periods where you’re using it.”

ABC knows such perils better than most of its competitors. A few years ago, when ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” became a surprise (and inexpensive) hit, the network programmed it four nights a week, overexposing it and running it into the ground. Viewers deserted ”Millionaire,” and since ABC hadn’t developed enough quality programs to replace it, the whole network tumbled into the Nielsen cellar, from which it’s only beginning to climb out this season.

Among ABC’s upcoming reality slate, there’s ”Are You Hot: The Search for America’s Sexiest People” (premiering Feb. 13), a six-episode show ”where intelligence and achievement have absolutely no bearing,” Lyne says. Feb. 19 marks the 15-night consecutive run of ”I’m a Celebrity — Get Me Out of Here!” A new season of ”The Bachelor” begins March 26, with a star ABC described in a statement as ”the son of one of America’s most affluent and prominent families.” And ”Extreme Makeover” returns with more televised plastic surgery for six episodes starting April 3.

ABC isn’t the only network that’s making reality hay while the unscripted sun shines. Other offbeat shows in the pipeline include a revival of ”The Gong Show,” now that the movie ”Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” has reacquainted America with producer/host Chuck Barris. Alas, Barris won’t be part of the WB’s no-talent talent show, since he sold the rights years ago. At CBS, they’ve enlisted ”American Idol” judge Simon Cowell to produce a summer series called ”Cupid,” which seems a hybrid of ”Idol,” ”Sex and the City,” and ”The Bachelorette.” In that show, a woman will travel around the country meeting men, with her two girlfriends offering snarky commentary to aid the home audience in voting for potential suitors. And the aptly named Triage Productions is talking to Fox and other networks about a show in which a Rocky Balboa-like amateur would train to step into the boxing ring with Mike Tyson. Talk about biting off more than you can chew.