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Reality’s Celebrity Invasion

8/05/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Don’t look now, but cable television is being overrun by celebrities, to use the term loosely. So many of the reality series scheduled for late summer and early fall are either built around B-level stars or feature cameos of stars of a higher magnitude. From the VH1’s “Celebreality” block to Venus & Serena: For Real on ABC Family, the phenomenon might seem surreal to those who thought reality television was supposed to feature ordinary people.

But there seems to be no end to America’s unquenchable thirst to peek behind the curtain to see how famous people live.

Aside from ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, which also featured B-level celebrities, these cable shows are generating more heat than most of broadcast’s offerings this summer. Taken collectively, they are helping cable push its ratings share to its highest-ever versus broadcast, with basic cable garnering a 60 share of prime time in June and 61% in July, according to Nielsen Media Research.

There are several obvious reasons why combining the reality genre with a somewhat recognizable name makes sense. Reality shows are cheap and quick to produce, and hiring a former star or tabloid personality doesn’t break the bank.

Sources say wages for shows vary greatly depending upon who’s attached, but $10,000 an episode is at the high end. By comparison, sitcoms pay at least $25,000 an episode to relative unknowns. Seasons also tend to be short and sweet, typically six episodes instead of 13, so if a show fails the impact on the bottom line is minimal.

Also, celebrities add instant name recognition to a project, giving the press a hook to run with and a reason for viewers to at least sample it. Even a cameo can help to shed light in a crowded field, says Trading Spaces producer Jeanne McHale Waite, who was able to convince stars like Vivica Fox and Susan Sarandon to appear on her company’s new hidden-camera hoax show High-Jinks, which premiered Aug. 2 on Nick at Nite. “It helps in terms of promotion and helps in terms of tantalizing people’s interest enough to get them to sample the show,’” says Waite, CEO of Banyan Productions.

Best of all, celebrity-driven reality resonates with younger viewers, who no longer seem to distinguish between actors, celebrities and those who have appeared on reality shows. Dozens of reality TV blog and fan sites track the careers of reality stars the way fanzines have followed movie stars since the 1940s. In some ways they are even more viable than trained actors to younger audiences because they reveal their true selves on television.

“To them, they are just stars on TV,” says Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV Networks music group. “They’ve been weaned on Jerry Springer and the O.J. Simpson trial, and they don’t know why you would put actors in the way of real drama.”

The reality celebs are parlaying their 15 minutes of fame into 15 more, with an option for 30. VH1’s The Surreal Life, which began life on The WB in October 2002, has taken full advantage of this trend, casting actors and reality veterans like Celebrity Mole winner Kathy Griffin, who stars in her own reality show, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, on Bravo this summer, and The Apprentice villain Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, appearing in the new season of Surreal Life.

E! Entertainment Television president Ted Harbert, who admits his network is doing the same thing using Brittny Gastineau’s newfound celebrity status from E!’s Gastineau Girls to help propel the new series Filthy Rich Cattle Drive, sees the trend as being even more pronounced. Not only are reality veterans today’s stars, but the shows they appear in are today’s comedies and dramas. Formats that have taken decades to establish are being obliterated by the reality genre in the blink of an eye.

He labels Girls Next Door — a show about Hugh Hefner and his three girlfriends that premiered after Cattle Drive on Sunday, Aug 7 — a comedy. Cattle Drive is a serial drama, Harbert says.

“Just as Melrose Place and Dynasty were contained scripted explosions, these are unscripted explosions,” he adds. “You may say, 'Gee, how did that happen?’ We’ve been on a steady escalation of hyperbole in this society since Elvis. You keep going and going and going. I don’t know where it ends.”

Pushing the hyperbole to its natural conclusion are shows that try to deconstruct the fascination of the whole reality trend while simultaneously delivering on the spontaneity of the genre. E!’s Kill Reality examines the dark side of the dream in more ways than one. On one level, it’s a reality show about the making of a slasher movie that kills off some the reality genre’s biggest stars. On another, it examines some of the dirty little secrets about the genre, like how doing such shows can adversely affect an actor’s career.

Bravo’s six-episode Battle of the Network Reality Stars, premiering Aug. 17, is a homage to the simpler days when the original Battle of the Network Stars captivated audiences. But the show is also a modern reality contest with commentary by the ever-present Omarosa, The Bachelor’s Bob Guiney and Trishelle from The Real World.

Combining both elements will hit the spot for Bravo’s upscale, well-read viewers, says Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo. “You take the nostalgia piece and put a modern wrapper on it, and that’s the bulls-eye of Bravo,”she says.

MEANS TO AN END

Some celebrity reality shows fall into the guilty-pleasure category, exploiting people’s desire for gossip. Shows like E! True Hollywood Story and VH1 Behind the Music have hit pay dirt with that concept. Others fulfill the perverse desire to see a star trip up or fail. TV Land’s Chasing Farrah played with Farrah Fawcett’s airhead image, confusing her on camera by alternating real admirers with actors just playing fans.

Being Bobby Brown, which is averaging more than 1 million viewers on Thursday nights on Bravo, wallows in Brown’s crass behavior and the humiliation Whitney Houston suffers because of it.

“I think because we live in such an Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight world, we all want to know what’s up everyone’s butt,” joked Kathy Griffin at the critics tour earlier this summer. It’s a trend she avidly follows. “I don’t know if you’re watching Being Bobby Brown, or as I call it, Mr. and Mrs. Crackerson. Who knew they were that insane? I can’t get enough of it. I love it. I sweat watching it.”

Others start out with this fascination for celebrity and use it as a jumping-off point to tell an unexpected story about a celebrity’s life, character or humanity. A new show in development by Mick Jagger’s Jagged Films and A&E, called Being …, peers inside the life of a different famous person each week — not to find the dirt but rather the commonality the audience shares with them, says Nancy Dubuc, senior vice president of non-fiction and alternative programming for A&E Networks.

“Celebrities live in a glamorous world, but in their hearts, they are human beings,” says Dubuc, who says Jagger was able to mine his rolodex to find some top-drawer subjects for the show.

Brian Graden claims the appeal of VH1’s Hogan Knows Best, which set a network record 2.7 million viewers on its July 10 debut, is not Hulk Hogan’s fame but the ability to see him in a fish-out-of-water situation, trying to raise his 16-year-old daughter.

Run’s House, about the family life of rap pioneer Run from Run-D.M.C. premiering on MTV in October, will aim to show the tender, affectionate, befuddled side of a man known by most only by his larger-than-life persona.

Graden compared the appeal of Run’s House to that of Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which showed its heart in the famous “Chicken of the Sea” incident that only endeared Simpson further to husband Lachey. The real magic come from when such unexpected moments occur, he says, not from concept s or formulas that have played out ad nauseam on some networks.

“The notion of X meets Y is not a place we start, because then you’re starting from a derivative place to begin with,” says Graden. “Only by starting on the strength of something that’s organic will you find the magic.”

GENTLER REALITY

Nasty villains may still make for compelling television. After all, the backstabbing shenanigans of Survivor alumni Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich are credited with lifting the ratings of CBS’s The Amazing Race to their highest yet this past season.

But a more positive brand of reality is finding success on cable. Inspirational stories about real-life characters are taking the place of contrived, elimination-type formats that thrive on conflict and jealousy.

In contrast to My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancée, Oxygen debuted Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance on Aug. 6, a reality-based beauty pageant that celebrates full-figured women.

The star of UPN’s The Parkers assured critics at the press tour it was an antidote to such mean-spirited shows that project an unreal image of women.

“I got tired of watching what they claim is 'reality’ on television. They kept making big and fat and overweight a bad thing,” says Mo’Nique. “I want to watch reality TV that’s kind, that’s nice, that when you turn it off you feel good.”

Personal transformation is a popular theme. What began on makeover shows about getting a new look or a new living space has moved over to getting a new lease on life. A&E says its “real life” series are all about this, from Growing up Giotti and Knievel’s Wild Ride to Dog the Bounty Hunter, which continues to average 1 million 25-54 year olds in its second season.

“People are looking for this genre of programming to go to the next level, and life transformation is where a lot of feel-good stuff has been born,” says A&E’s Dubuc.

In development for this fall on A&E is Random 1, focusing on a roaming group of people performing random acts of kindness to strangers. A&E’s Intervention, which debuted in March, followed two people each week as they tried to battle additions to drugs and alcohol with the help of friends and loved ones. The network joined with The Partnership for a Drug Free America and MSO public-affairs groups to raise awareness about addiction.

“Television used to have a public-service factor. Now the cable industry is finding a way to embrace those roots and offer entertainment programming that might also do some good. That’s the magic bullet if you can get both,” says Dubuc.

REAL-LIFE EXPERTISE

Transformation aside, wacky, compelling characters are also a large part of the appeal of A&E’s real-life shows, and other cable networks are actively on the hunt for unusual stories of unusual people to tell. Court TV’s name for it is “expert reality,” focusing on characters that are good at something audiences would like to learn more about.

Parco P.I., which debuts Aug. 28, is the network’s first stab at this reality docudrama format about a New York City family of private eyes. It combines cinema verité elements with scripted enactments of Vinny Parco’s most memorable cases.

Las Vegas Law, set to debut in the first quarter of 2006, focuses on a defense lawyer named Bucky Buchanan, whose firm handles over 5,000 cases a year in Sin City. The network thinks characters in these worlds will spark great interest.

“I think transformative, emotional stories in which someone changes, learns something and becomes better is what reality is really about. What’s integral is a character you find fascinating to take you into a world you’re not privy to,” says Marc Juris, general manager of programming and marketing for Court TV.

Las Vegas Law also intersects with the world of gambling, which is still red-hot on cable, particularly if you throw a few celebrities into the mix. Bravo plans to roll out the sixth season of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Aug. 18, featuring Rosie O’Donnell and Penny Marshall.

GSN recently taped an episode of its Poker Royale series pitting James Woods against 2004 World Poker Tour winner Phil “The Unabomber” Laak that will premiere Friday, Nov. 25 as part of GSN’s poker-night block. GSN also has a competitive reality series in the works, 24 Hours in Vegas.

Of course there is a dark side to every phenomenon, which cable nets like Court TV are there to explore. Stalkers in the Shadows on Sept. 8 examines the celebrity-stalking problem that has plagued stars like Mel Gibson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.

Al Roker Investigates: Youth Gambling airing on Dec. 8, looks at how the gambling and poker fad has penetrated youth culture, all the way down to the middle-school ranks.

No matter how you like it; celebrity-obsessed, voyeuristic, transformational or informational, reality television has moved past the fad stage to become a staple on cable today and far into the foreseeable future, say executives. The mixing of genres and switching of directions are a testament to how versatile the genre is, and proof that it can accommodate endless possibilities.

“It’s similar to when hip-hop music started, or rap music, as it was called. A lot of people said, 'This is a fad; this is not going to be around forever,’” says Rich Cronin, CEO of GSN. “But it is around forever. I think reality is the same. There will be a lot of hybrids and different kinds of experiments, but it’s going to be here from now on.”

September