When MTV: Music Television debuted The Osbournes in 2002, it ushered in a new strain of the formidable reality-programming genre — one that focused the camera more squarely on the everyday lives of the quasi-famous in their real-life environments.
Three years later, the concept has been successfully co-opted by numerous basic and pay-cable entertainment networks.
Programmers have put celebrities of the moment and past under the spotlight, have or extended it to more obscure people engaged in interesting professions.
Network executives say this voyeuristic format provides viewers — already smitten with the competition and makeover-based versions of reality fare — with often intimate, behind-the-scenes looks at slices of life most watchers never have or will experience.
And given that these glimpses pertain to the subjects’ “real” lives, it has widened the genre beyond the casts assembled for genre staples as MTV: Music Television staple The Real World or CBS’s Big Brother.
“Instead of welcoming the viewer into a rented house to see how strangers interact, this is the talent, the directors and the channel inviting the viewers into an existing world and fully exploring it, with drama at every turn,” Bravo and Trio president Lauren Zalaznick said.
She used the descriptor “observational reality” for series like Bravo’s Blowout, which focuses on renowned hair stylist Jonathan Antin’s Los Angeles salon.
For cable, voyeuristic reality shows like Chasing Farrah, TV Land’s Farrah Fawcett vehicle, and VH1’s Strange Love, about the unique relationship between actress Brigitte Nielsen and rapper Flavor Flav, provide an alternative to broadcast reality stalwarts such as Survivor and The Swan, which mostly feature manufactured situations and experiences.
“Reality is getting more real because a lot of the tropes and narrative beats of high reality style, like Survivor and [The] Bachelorette, are getting played out,” said Michael Hirschorn, senior vice president of programming and production at VH1.
Added ABC Family president Paul Lee: “You could argue that one of the reasons why [voyeur reality] is hitting an emotional chord is that people are getting a little tired of the artificial reality. There’s a lot of great emotion locked in the artificial story lines, but there’s a lot that’s kept out.”
While producers of such shows as ABC Family’s Las Vegas Garden of Love or E!’s Gastineau Girls (which tracks the lives of Lisa and Brittny Gastineau, the ex-wife and daughter of former National Football League star Mark Gastineau) do shape the stories that appear on air, executives said the storylines and action within the shows are as true to reality as any entertainment show on television. That realism, executives said, is what attracts viewers to the genre.
KEEPING IT NOT FAKE
“The audience is very smart and I believe they have has a great bullshit meter and a real sense of what is believable and what is fake — and they don’t want fake,” said E! Networks CEO Ted Harbert. “They’ve watched a lot of reality shows and they know when something seems overly planned and manipulated — they’d rather see real people laugh and cry than when it’s manipulated and written by producers.”
A&E senior vice president of programming Robert DeBitetto said that such “life series” also allow viewers to feel good about tapping into the guilty pleasure of being the proverbial fly on the wall of someone else’s existence.
“It gets to the feeling of, 'I’ve been invited to a world that’s real and one that I probably shouldn’t be seeing, but nevertheless here I am,’ ” DeBitetto said. “What really drives that in some cases is developing characters that they might not otherwise know or may think they know but they don’t.
“Some people may have thought they knew Ozzy Osbourne, because they happen to be fans of Black Sabbath for 25 years, but they didn’t have any idea until The Osbournes were on the air,” he added.
The unpredictability of what happens behind the scenes is what has captivated audiences, executives added.
“Truth is often times stranger than fiction,” said Showtime Networks Inc. president of entertainment Bob Greenblatt.
The pay TV service offers its own behind-the-scenes late-night reality series, Family Business, about porn actor and producer Adam Glasser; his alter ego, “Seymore Butts”; and his family’s role in the adult-film business.
“I think on television, the whole 'truth is stranger than fiction’ phenomenon manifested itself for years in that whole docudrama movie-of-the-week form, where amazing stories based on true events were made into stories,” Greenblatt noted.
LURING NEW VIEWERS
Such reality programming has allowed entertainment networks to cut a slice of the burgeoning reality pie without compromising their core programming or brand identity.
For A&E, which has historically appealed to older, more mature audiences, shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter, Airline and Growing Up Gotti have afforded opportunities to bring new viewers into the tent, without offending its core 25-to-54 target audience.
“What we have consciously tried to avoid are the overly contrived environments — the contest shows and lowest common denominator fare,” DeBitetto said.
“Those shows can work very well, but A&E has always been something of a premium destination. We were looking for a way to capitalize on the history [of A&E] and to offer genres that would fit comfortably within the broad parameters of A&E, but that place a much greater premium on the entertainment aspect that would captivate younger audiences.”
Thus far, it’s worked. Airline and Gotti, in particular, have become consistent ratings producers for the network. Both Airline — which takes viewers behind the scenes with Southwest Airlines crews working with passengers at four airports — and Gotti — a chronicle of the life of mobster John Gotti’s daughter, Victoria, and her children — average a 1.0 household rating.
More importantly for the network, Gotti viewers average 35 years in age, while the Airline audience has an average age of about 45. That’s helped A&E lower its median viewer age to 51, from nearly 60 just 18 months ago.
For networks already familiar with the reality genre, like ABC Family, voyeur skeins like the network’s Las Vegas Garden of Love, which follows a family that runs a Sin City marriage chapel, provide an opportunity to further define its brand.
“It’s very important to us to start to move ABC Family into a contemporary channel that really reflects today’s families,” said ABC Family’s Lee said. “With Garden of Love, you’re not watching a family, but [it] places you right in the heart of the family. All great television is about great stories and characters that you can relate to.”
WILL THEY SYNDICATE?
But while voyeur reality shows are drawing viewers during their initial runs, executives are not sure whether such programming will enjoy an afterlife in traditional syndication or on other cable networks. The argument goes that competition-based reality shows like Survivor or American Idol are arguably a difficult sell, because viewers already know who’ve won.
But some cable executives think voyeur reality shows — with strong, likeable characters and well-developed story lines — can prosper after their first runs conclude.
“Whereas the reality drama/competition fare arcs out, I think the reality comedies, in particular, continue to work on a half-hour basis long after its [first-run] arc,” MTV Networks Music Group entertainment president Brian Graden said.
MTV officials, though, say the network has no immediate plans to syndicate The Osbournes, which for four seasons tracked the trials and tribulations of the aging rocker, his wife Sharon and their progeny Jack and Kelly, before concluding with its 50th episode on March 21.
Added ABC Family’s Lee: “What [reality] brings you in relevance doesn’t necessarily bring you in terms of repeatability. Time will tell whether The Osbournes, Gotti or Las Vegas Garden of Love will come back.”
There’s also another factor that could stunt the growth of this reality sub-genre: production. The harsh reality for many of these series is that they won’t have enough episodes to warrant an afterlife, since very few have the staying power to remain viable past one or two seasons.
Executives admit that it’s difficult to keep the shine on characters exposed over 20 or 30 episodes.
TOO MUCH 'ANNA’
That’s what happened to E!’s The Anna Nicole Show. After debuting in 2002 with a network record 4.1 household rating, its performance quickly tailed off as viewers eventually tired of seeing former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith go about her everyday life.
The show was cancelled two years later.
“It isn’t as simple as finding an interesting person and putting a camera on them,” said E!’s Harbert. “You have to do as much program development on a reality show as you do on a scripted show.
“You’re not going to change people into being something they’re not, but it’s not like you can just put a camera on them when they wake up in the morning and just follow them eating breakfast and going on throughout the day.”
Added Showtime’s Greenblatt: “The more sensational, manufactured and trendy kinds of reality shows are the ones that come on strong at first and then flare out, whereas reality show that are actually reality-based and that feature clever filmmakers who can mine those real situations are the ones that have legs.
“When you document real lives, they tend to have enormous longevity, and the natural clashes that go on within their world give you endless stories to tell.”
FRESHNESS POSES CHALLENGE
It’s also a challenge to keep the talent interested in the show once the limelight hits. Executives say sometimes characters — particularly unknown performers who become famous through their respective reality skeins — may begin to play to the camera, which makes for a more superficial and staged feel.
“The reason that these shows work is that the viewer buys into the reality,” DiBitetto said. “The minute that the shows present themselves as less than honest, that’s when you have to worry.”
But that could also work to the show’s advantage, as it has with Showtime’s Family Business, now in its third season. Greenblatt said the exposure and fame that the show’s characters gained during the first season started to bleed into the production, which provided a more interesting and richer palette from which the producers could work.
“When fans began asking for their autographs because of the show, we made that part and parcel of the show,” Greenblatt said. “It’s made the show even more real and believable to the audience.”
MORE TO COME
For the near-term, network executives said they’ll continue to roll out voyeuristic reality programming. MTV — which has also had success with more comedic-based reality shows as the Jessica Simpson/Nick Lachey vehicle Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica and ’Till Death Do Us Part: Carmen and Dave, featuring actress/pin-up Carmen Electra and rocker Dave Navarro —will take another shot at a celebrity marriage skein later this year with Meet The Barkers, chronicling the lives of Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker and actress and former Miss USA, according to Graden.
Bravo will point the cameras at the lives of comedian Howie Mandel and B-comic Kathy Griffin in developing two separate reality shows, while A&E in April will track the coming and goings of daredevil motorcycle rider Robbie Knievel, the son of Evel Knievel, in a new docu-soap.