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Rehn Ovation

''Bachelorette'' leads reality ratings stampede. Numbers for Wednesday's debuts of ''Bachelorette,'' ''Star Search,'' and ''Celebrity Mole Hawaii'' make networks rejoice

Critics may complain that reality shows are increasingly unoriginal, desperate, and cynical, but viewers apparently can't get enough. On Wednesday, a night when each hour of prime time offered a new reality series, those premieres, led by ''The Bachelorette,'' earned numbers so strong that network executives proclaimed that reality programming is actually reversing the flight of young viewers away from broadcast toward cable.

The 9 p.m. ''Bachelorette'' drew 17.4 million viewers, putting it in the same league as Monday's debut of ''Joe Millionaire,'' which drew 18.6 million to Fox. ABC's sauce-for-the-goose dating show easily beat a new episode of NBC's ''The West Wing'' and drew a higher percentage of men than either of last year's ''Bachelor'' miniseasons. At 10 p.m., ABC's ''Celebrity Mole Hawaii'' premiere drew 10.7 million, competing well against NBC's ''Law & Order.'' At 8, CBS' premiere of ''Star Search'' drew 13.8 million viewers.

Numbers like these prompted CBS researcher David Poltrack to tell the Hollywood Reporter that reality programming is so popular with young viewers that it is actually reversing a trend and luring viewers away from cable. ''You've got to say [reality] is the hot genre; it's outperforming everything,'' he says. ''It has become the preferred format for younger viewers.'' ''For 18- to 34-year-olds, shows like 'Fear Factor' are their comedies and [shows like] 'The Bachelorette' are their dramas,'' agreed NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker. ''It's starting to bring viewers back to the networks,'' Fox vice president Preston Beckman told the New York Daily News. In other words, expect to see a lot more new reality dating shows, talent searches, and celebrity battles.

Originally posted Jan 10, 2003