OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

When Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing almost 35 years ago, who could've imagined they'd be offering words of wisdom to advertisers in the 21st century?

Reality programming is increasingly becoming the way to reach the top of the Nielsen ratings charts in US television, meaning it's also increasingly becoming the way for marketers to try turning viewers into customers.

At first, advertisers shied away from reality shows, fearing they were too cheesy or sleazy to attract the right kind of consumers, but the success of Survivor on CBS along with American Idol on Fox pretty much put those concerns to rest.

The trend was underscored by the results last month from the first "sweeps" period of the 2002-2003 season, when several of the hit shows to emerge from the jousting among the big broadcast networks - to help their local stations set rates for selling commercial time - were from the reality genre. Among them: The Bachelor on ABC, which offered a ringside seat as a young stud chose from among 25 potential brides, and another instalment of Survivor.

When the new year begins, a flood of reality fare is to be unleashed, including the second season of American Idol; Are You Hot? on ABC, a beauty pageant for both sexes; Star Search on CBS, a revival of a talent contest popular as a syndicated series; High School Reunion on the WB, reconnecting members of a Class of 1992 to replay their adolescence; and The Bachelorette on ABC, which with the kind of idea that passes for a brainstorm in TV will offer a ringside seat as a young studette chooses from among 25 potential grooms.

Also in the works is a hybrid genre of reality versions of fictional series, starting with Real Beverly Hillbillies, which is to send a family of rural folks to live in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb, mirroring the plot of a popular CBS sitcom of the 60s. There even may be a Real Green Acres, based on another CBS 60s hit that turned the premise of The Beverly Hillbillies inside out by sending the denizens of a Park Avenue penthouse to live on a farm. (Making it even more difficult to tell the real from the non-real, the Old Navy division of Gap has been running commercials with the actress Morgan Fairchild spoofing Green Acres to sell low-priced overalls-style jeans.)

And there'll be a second variation on the theme celebrity reality, inspired by The Osbournes on MTV; the first episode of the second season, which appeared last week, drew viewership comparable to the peak numbers at the end of the first, when Ozzy's family became so powerful a phenomenon that MTV was able to raise rates tenfold for commercials during the show.

Get set for The Surreal Life on the WB, with B-list stars living together in a house like The Real World or Big Brother; a celebrity version of Big Brother on CBS; Star Dates on the E! Entertainment cable network; a celebrity edition of The Mole on ABC; and also on ABC, an American version of the British hit I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!.

One reason reality shows, with or without celebrities, are being embraced by formerly skittish advertisers is the ability to imbed product placements in the programming, making them "zap-proof" from viewers who change channels to avoid conventional commercials. Among big brands aboard the reality bandwagon: Coca-Cola, Ford, Frito-Lay, Reebok and Visa.

Perhaps the next reality series will present the meetings at which network executives hear pitches from producers for ... yes, the next reality series.

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