Jennifer Armstrong
December 03, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

In a sure sign that the reality TV craze has hit its long-awaited slide, the formerly ubiquitous dating sub-genre might be down to its final rose. And yes, even The Bachelor is wilting. The once-hot ABC franchise is barely hanging on this season, with an audience of 8.5 million — down nearly a third in total viewers from last season’s average and less than half of the 17.6 million tuning in for its Wednesday night lead-in, Lost. The show’s Survivor-meets-Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? concept, which seemed so revolutionary when it debuted in the spring of 2002, feels downright quaint after an onslaught of imitators warped and twisted the premise. (That means you, Mr. Personality, Cupid, Married by America, The Littlest Groom…)

”There have been a lot of derivative series,” says ABC executive vice president Andrea Wong. ”It hurts the genre.” Original Bachelor Alex Michel concurs: ”I thought those other shows were entertaining, but it felt like it was harder to invest in them. The Bachelor is a little cheesy, but it really is about people looking for love.”

Still, like a Bachelor reject who won’t go away, reality TV will stick around in some form. Its influence might even spread to scripted shows: Lost, one of this fall’s biggest hits, is a distant cousin of Survivor — a link that sometime romance-reality producer Bruce Nash (Outback Jack, For Love or Money) predicts more of. ”You might see it from me,” he hints, ”taking what we’ve learned making reality television, and bringing it to the scripted world.”

In fact, Nash is doing just that, developing several hybrids — much like Law & Order: Criminal Intent ‘s American Idol-inspired stunt in October (viewers voted on the fate of Olivia D’Abo’s villainous Nicole Wallace). ”It could be part sitcom and part reality,” says Nash. ”Or it could just use the conventions of reality TV, but it’s scripted.”

So much for the Omarosas and Evan Marriotts of the world — if Nash succeeds. A move away from straight-up reality would mean the return of stars — and shows — with life spans longer than 15 minutes. ”We look back so fondly at our old scripted shows,” Nash says. ”Do you think we’re going to be looking back on reality shows so fondly, running them on Nick at Nite?”

Perhaps not, but reality TV can increase its life expectancy by ditching ridiculous concepts and contrived spoofs (My Big Fat Obnoxious Whatever). ”When they look like skits on Saturday Night Live, that’s when audiences say, ‘You’ve gone too far and you’re making fun of me for watching these things,”’ says Bill Carroll, a media analyst for Katz Television Group. ”In a lot of variations on the theme, they’re not only jumping the shark, they’re holding on to it for dear life.”

Who knows? In the end, reality TV’s slide (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition continues to build its audience, but only Survivor remains a top 10 fixture) might prompt the genre’s most shocking twist yet: smarter shows. ”Networks haven’t been developing shows and making sure they’re first-rate,” says Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss, whose The Real Gilligan’s Island debuts on TBS Nov. 30. ”I’d like to go back to a world where good, original [reality] shows succeed. Let television Darwinism prevail!”

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