Hey Honey, We're on Cable!

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Oh say, can you see The Truman Show
ahead? In case you missed that Jim Carrey vehicle, it's the flick in which his character's life — unbeknownst to him — has, from birth, been the fodder for the world's longest-running TV series, capturing billions of viewers every second.

Cameras follow Truman's activities everywhere in a city fabricated just for that purpose. When Truman learns at age 30 of his existence as a TV celebrity, he disconnects his video umbilical cord and moves on with life.

The environment depicted in The Truman Show
remains fantasy in 2002, but with the success of MTV: Music Television's The Osbournes
and E! Entertainment Television's The Anna Nicole Show
over the last nine months, it seems cable has taken considerable steps in Truman's direction.

When all is done, will "reality sitcoms" — as critics and industry observers describe both of these programs — evolve into a programming genre that reaches significant proportions, or will they burn out by this time next year?

"As long as shows like this focus on compelling characters and story lines, it could become a genre unto itself," said VH1 head of East Coast programming and development Rob Weiss.

That network will begin testing the format's legs on Nov. 30, with the launch of Liza & David
, its series on Liza Minelli and her new husband, entertainment entrepreneur David Gest.

Weiss, who serves as one of the program's executive producers, said taping of the series' 10 half-hour episodes began the week of Oct. 7.

Compelling Fare

Like traditional situation comedies or dramas, "people will watch or not watch reality shows because of their focus," Weiss said. "As long as the subject is carefully chosen, the show has a shot to work.

"For us, Liza is compelling. Besides the fact that she has been famous from the womb [as one of Judy Garland's daughters], in a sense, she's a celebrity famous for her entertainment accomplishments. Going in, she's someone people know."

As someone who's been around the industry for a while — he developed the KTLA Morning News
for Los Angeles's KTLA-TV in the early 1990s, and also worked at FX — E! executive vice president for entertainment Mark Sonnenberg has watched fads and genres weave in and out with the times.

Drawing from TV history, he said, one shouldn't rush to judgment on the endurance of reality sitcoms.

"When I worked at ABC two decades ago, people were saying comedies were dead, and then came The Cosby Show," Sonnenberg said. "Medical dramas at one point were dead, and ER, along with Chicago Hope, brought that dormant form back.

"Reality shows have been around since the dawn of TV — look at Candid Camera. Never say something is a fad. Things will come down to how well we and other networks deliver compelling personalities and story lines to get people engrossed."

Certainly, there were plenty of people engrossed — and perhaps grossed out — by both The Osbournes
and Anna Nicole. MTV's look at heavy-metal icon Ozzy Osbourne's family life attained pop-culture status, drawing a sizable mainstream audience as well as viewers in the network's core youth demographic.

Meanwhile, E!'s series tracking one-time Playboy
Playmate of the Year Anna Nicole Smith opened with a 4.1 household rating on Aug. 11 — the highest-ever for the network, and tied for No 2. in basic-cable history with FX's The Shield, behind the premiere of USA Network's The Dead Zone.

Critics have given The Osbournes
hosannas while largely trashing Anna Nicole. While the show has lost half of its original viewership, Anna
averaged a 2 household rating in recent weeks, three times the channel's year-to-date primetime average.

Total home ratings were up 25 percent from last year and performance among adults 18 to 34 was ahead 40 percent from mid-2001, Sonnenberg said.

Anna Nicole
will complete its 13-episode first season in November. At press time, E! executives said further segments were under consideration.

The Family Man

On the heels of its Emmy Award for best nonfiction series, The Osbournes
will return with new episodes later this month. MTV ordered 20 more episodes of the show at a steep increase in license fee.

The surprise hit — which airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time — debuted with a 2.8 household rating on March 5, and averaged a 4.4 for the premieres of its 10-episode run.

The high point came with the eighth installment on April 23, which scored a 6.0 household rating and some 7.8 million viewers. Ozzy and brood also performed even better among MTV's core 12-to-34 audience, averaging a 5.3 rating and 5.6 million for that demographic.

The former Black Sabbath front man and bat biter's presence also provided a strong lead in to an MTV staple: reality-format progenitor The Real World, then in its 12th iteration.

Why did The Osbournes
trigger must-see TV habits among both MTV's youth and a broader crowd? It was the novelty of a known fish in different-but-recognizable waters, said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television's senior research vice president and co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.

"Here's an icon of youthful rebellion, and he's got kids, he's got grief, he's facing the battle of the bulge, he's trying to make the TV work," said Brooks. "The fact that it's Ozzy Osbourne, rebellious figure as family man, is catchy.

"And by accident, it fit the classic structure of a TV sitcom, with the befuddled but loving dad, the smart mom and the two kids. The family plays it to the hilt. It touched something all adults recognize and hate to face — we're not 18 anymore."

And who knew that something as mundane as family life — at least by a rock icon's standards — would add fuel to the fire?

"If you asked 100 people to give different adjectives to describe Ozzy, not one person would say loving father," said Sonnenberg. "He was a burnt-out musician, [a] rich rock star with a savvy business life, and between the antics that go on [including a lot of bleeped-out language], there's a lot of love in the family. The show snuck up on everyone."

MTV executives and producers associated with The Osbournes
were asked to comment for this article, but were unavailable by press time.

TV types

For Weiss, it's those at the center of reality sitcoms who will determine if they endure. With two shows of notoriety on the air, he's already divided those subjects into two categories: legitimate celebrities and made-for-TV celebrities.

"The Osbournes were famous before cameras started following them around," said Weiss. "Anna Nicole is made-for-TV because the media made her a celebrity.

"For me, made-for-TV celebrities are less compelling. There are viewers who enjoy Anna Nicole
. That's not the show I want to do."

Smith's series was developed due to the solid ratings generated by her installment of The E! True Hollywood Story. The fact that Anna Nicole's ratings have stabilized at around a 2 in households shows there's a foundation of viewers who want to see its central character face life in a tongue-in-cheek manner, Sonnenberg said.

He also maintains that these viewers don't leave the set concluding that Smith is a pitiful person or someone to be pitied, as many critics have argued in their reviews.

"It's either your taste or it's not," he continued. "The point is, the program is about this adult, her personality and how she deals with life, albeit not taking herself too seriously. We're letting people be a fly on the wall with her. It has a core audience."

The dilemma for VH1's Liza & David, Brooks believes, rests with comparisons with the MTV and E! shows.

"She's not a human cartoon, as Anna, or a rebel, as Ozzy — she's mainstream, from the old school of brassy entertainment," he said. "Will the channel's audience take to her? I don't know, but the smartest thing for her to do was to have this be on VH1. The audience there may play to her strengths."

Liza's Reality

Just as MTV's show surprised many by examining a different side of a rocker, Weiss is resolute in his belief that when viewers catch Liza's reality — framed in an I Love Lucy
manner — the audience will be intrigued.

Originally, VH1 publicity for the show made it look like Minelli and hubby would recreate Playboy After Dark, opening their New York digs to a mix of entertainers and other famous names, with musical performances galore. As Weiss plans it, two-thirds of each segment will be a week in the life of Liza and David — the places they go, the people they see and the wackiness that ensues. A dinner party segment will conclude the episodes, some taped on location.

"Most of the crowd Liza and David hang out with are young. The audience will be surprised by the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary of their lives, and that's where the show's genius will come from," Weiss said. "The daily goings-on, as glamorous as they are, will make for great TV. They expect the show will be classy, and we're out to have it be a reflection of who they are."

Fundamentally, these shows appeal to our voyeuristic tendencies.

They're not quite The Truman Show, but they're interesting facsimiles.

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