A dose of reality

The right match makes all the difference for cable networks

When MTV introduced "The Real World" in 1992, it ushered in an era of reality programming on cable. For a variety of reasons, this year more and more cable networks are jumping in and adding reality offerings to their schedules.

Reality programming is popular because "it's flexible programming that can do well in any slot," says BBC America VP-Programming Richard De Croce, whose network has several stylish reality series, including "Top Gear."

As the market for reality programming grows and matures, instead of just "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," advertisers must keep up with their consumers and know what type of reality they watch. For example, college students might notice a Doritos ad that made them chuckle during a break on "Rock of Love," but for a chance at Mom noticing a commercial, "Your Mama Don't Dance" might be a better option.

Since today's reality audience is expecting more from their reality shows, such as higher levels of production and more intricate stories, programmers must push their creatives.

Brant Pinvidic, senior VP-programming for TLC, says, "It used to be when any network would put out a new reality show, it would be a big hit and everything would be great, but now they're starting to go through a natural cycle."

No matter what the concept, each reality show must support the network brand to be effective. "Viewers identify with the channel," says Mr. De Croce. "Strong personalities go hand in hand with the brand."

Jessica Samet, senior VP-reality programming for Lifetime Television, agrees. "Choice of reality programming depends on the channel."

Ms. Samet says reality has begun to play a larger role at Lifetime. The network's new show "Your Mama Don't Dance" is an emotional journey between mother and child. The twist is that professional dancers have to dance with their parents. "Our viewers come to Lifetime [reality] to go through the emotional roller-coaster with us, just as they do with our movies. That is what sets us apart from all the other networks," she says.

TLC has dedicated most of its lineup to different sorts of programming based on the lives of real people. "It has become the essence of our brand. When you're looking at TLC, you know you're going to be looking at people in their real settings," says Mr. Pinvidic. "Obviously, people don't look to us for movies; they don't look at us for other types of programming. We certainly made our mark in reality."

Three new TLC shows are designed to take the genre to new heights. "Date My House" looks at the real estate market differently: Its premise is that the buyer needs to want to have a relationship with the seller's home. The host is Bob Guiney, formerly of "The Bachelor."

TLC is also offering two new dating shows. "This Is Why You're Single" is a lighthearted look at the dating world. Each subject thinks he is filming a documentary about how hard it is to find the right man or woman. What the subjects don't know is that they're actually heading for an intervention, with friends and ex-girlfriends or boyfriends explaining why they're a dating disaster.

"Single Moms," TLC's other new dating series, explores dating through the eyes of single parents. Dating is a different reality when you have kids; for instance, "When do you introduce a potential person to your kids—when's too early, when is not? Not everybody is the bachelor or the bachelorette; that differentiates our audience," says Mr. Pinvidic.

Fox executives believe reality is programming that the 18-to-34-year-old audience in particular wants to watch. Michael Brochstein, senior VP of FX and Fox Reality, says, "It's programming you feel comfortable with. You find it attractive, interesting, you never know what to expect. It's not formula-driven. Once you've established in someone's mind that the nature of reality television is different, edgy, young, hip, exciting, people stay with it."

To validate that point, Fox Reality is launching a new show tentatively titled "Reality Binge." The show will be a recap of all reality shows for the week and will most likely be hosted by a celebrity who will go through clips of various programming shown during the current week.

Executives at Discovery Networks, parent of TLC, believe in both scripted and reality fare. "They both contribute to a certain audience. But Discovery is the No. 1 nonfiction cable company in the world. We really like that space," Mr. Pinvidic says.

Fox Reality VP Jim Tremblay says, "I think if you look at the top 10 shows on broadcast television, six of them are reality shows—including 'American Idol' and 'Moment of Truth' and 'Homemaker Edition.' If you look at the top 10 shows in cable, with VH1 shows like 'Rock of Love' and MTV shows, I believe four of those are reality television. Because of such evidence, we feel that reality television is possibly the strongest genre that exists."