OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

As the big US broadcast television networks get ready to unveil their prime-time schedules for 2003/2004, Madison Avenue has one question on its mind: How big a role will reality programming play in the coming season?

When the networks - ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and WB - present their line-ups at glitzy, star-studded media events next week, the stakes will be higher than ever. There are widespread expectations that the "upfront" market for commercial time, so named because the spots are sold in the next few weeks before the season begins, may break the record set last year, when the pre-season tally totalled a robust $8.1 billion.

Some analysts are predicting demand could reach as high as $9 billion or more, which would be an amazing outcome given the sluggish economy and lingering post-Iraqi war uncertainties, not to mention the general softness in demand for advertising.

But many marketers, and the agencies that bargain for time on their behalf, are eager to buy commercials on broadcast TV, convinced that when the going gets tough, the tough get going - to a tried-and-true medium that despite its flaws and drawbacks can still stimulate millions of consumers to buy packaged foods, test-drive cars, see movies or visit websites.

(OK, so maybe it can't get them to travel for business, buy stocks or replace computers, but what medium these days can?)

One reason for advertisers showing the love is that the broadcast networks have finally addressed the perennial complaints about the shrinkage in their primetime viewership by introducing a skein of reality series, most notably Survivor on CBS, Fear Factor on NBC, The Bachelor on ABC (alternating with the distaff version, The Bachelorette) and American Idol on Fox.

Such shows have drawn among the largest TV audiences during the 2003 to 2004 season, outperforming much of the more expensive scripted fare that audiences traditionally have favoured. Even better, reality programmes are particular favourites of the demographic group marketers most desire, viewers ages 18 to 34.

Still, the reality genre is not problem-free. The ratings for several series introduced recently have been erratic; some even were axed early.

The shows do not re-run well because the outcomes are known. Many reality series are deemed too earthy by lots of advertisers, especially the blue-chip packaged-goods mainstays of TV. Though they're willing to consider buying spots on shows they deem not too tacky - for instance, talent competitions such as American Idol, Star Search on CBS and America's Most Talented Kid on NBC - that leaves the networks with numerous programmes that are hard to sell.

And even when top-shelf marketers instruct their agencies to be open to less gamey reality series, the initial episode or episodes are being edited until just before airtime. That makes them ineligible for the rigorous pre-screening procedures the agencies require prior to greenlighting buys, meaning the networks have to try selling the time to less picky sponsors, frequently at fire-sale rates.

As a result, word is the networks are likely to revamp their fall schedules to rely much less on reality and re-emphasise scripted shows. The executives' goal would be not to swear off reality, but to become reality teetotallers, running such series in moderation.

Can moderation work in TV, where usually nothing succeeds like excess?

As they say, stay tuned.