Unscripted balances real with 'reality'

'Jon & Kate' highlights the boon or bust of the business

When the Oxygen network greenlighted the reality series "Addicted to Beauty," the idea was to chronicle the day-to-day workings of a trendy California medical spa via the lives of its married co-owners, a socialite and a doctor.

That was the plan, anyway.

"Before we even got into production, they got divorced," Oxygen GM Jason Klarman says. So when "Beauty" premieres next month, it will focus on socialite Dianne York-Goldman's attempt to start a med-spa at a different location, as well as her re-entry into single life.

"You've got to roll with the punches when you're doing these shows," Klarman says. "These aren't characters; these are real people, and you always run the risk of them having lives."

Indeed, as TLC has learned with its breakout hit "Jon & Kate Plus 8," the unanticipated real-life travails of reality personalities can prove both a boon and a bust to the network following their every move.

In TLC's case, a record 10.6 million viewers watched Jon and Kate Gosselin announce their marital breakup during the June 22 episode. But the show -- only six installments in a 40-episode order have aired -- has since gone on hiatus until Aug. 3 to figure out how to move forward.

The "Jon & Kate" phenomenon has sent shock waves through Hollywood's unscripted TV community.

"I'll bet there are some networks saying, 'Let's hire a vp of controversy; how can we make this happen for every show?' " says Arthur Smith, producer of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" and ABC's "I Survived a Japanese Game Show." "I think it might be a misguided reaction, but a lot of people are saying: 'What a home run! Ten million people watched TLC. How do we bottle that?' "

In a crowded reality landscape, execs even are strategizing ways to spice up their "diary" shows -- which track the day-to-day existences of ordinary people and celebrities -- with attention-grabbing real-life side stories.

"In a world where you never seem to have as much marketing money as you'd like, you need people talking about you," Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan says. "There's no question that when we're talking about doing a series, we think about what will get people talking: What will get activists talking, what will get US Weekly talking, what will get the 'Today' show talking, what will get YouTube talking."

Adds reality veteran JD Roth, who is producing A&E's "Hammertime": "Every time I've had a moment like that in a show -- and granted, none has generated the kind of press attention that 'Jon & Kate' has -- it's always helped the series, not hurt it. You don't want something to happen like what's happened to Jon and Kate, but you hope someone does something to shake things up. That's what moves the drama forward."

The heat generated by "Jon & Kate" is only the most recent example of unscripted TV's increasingly tough balancing act between the real and the "reality."

Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie stopped being friends after the third season of "The Simple Life," but by then E! had shelled out millions to acquire the show from Fox, so producers concocted a conceit that allowed the duo to continue for two more seasons without interacting much.

VH1 faced a similar challenge when Hulk Hogan's offscreen family troubles began to overshadow the fourth season of "Hogan Knows Best." Now the show continues as "Brooke Knows Best," focusing on Hogan's daughter.

And when Scott Baio unexpectedly impregnated his girlfriend, VH1's "Scott Baio Is 45 ... and Single" became "Scott Baio Is 46 ... and Pregnant."

The stakes have been raised, however, because of "Jon & Kate's" unexpected surge in popularity. Through four cycles, the show was a reliable if unspectacular ratings earner for a struggling channel. Then, in the spring, rumors regarding the marital infidelity of the series' principals began to circulate. US Weekly featured the Gosselins on its cover six consecutive weeks, and ratings exploded for a channel trying to gain traction under new president Eileen O'Neill.

The June 22 episode drew, by far, TLC's biggest audience to date. But rather than boisterously touting a hit, O'Neill has declined most interview requests, saying only that the show will continue in some fashion.

"I think TLC probably has to meet with advertisers to make them feel comfortable about staying in," says Shari Anne Brill, senior vp and director of programming and strategic audience analysis at ad-buying firm Carat. "They're taking a step back and figuring out what they're going to do next. Fundamentally, what that show was is not what it is now."

Ratings also indicate that scandal isn't necessarily enough to sustain an audience. After "Jon & Kate" first broke TLC's viewership mark on Memorial Day with its season premiere, it slid precipitously and didn't spike again until the episode featuring the split-up announcement.

According to Kaplan, for a show to enter the public consciousness the way "Jon & Kate" has, producers must be open to a certain level of uncontrolled dysfunction.

"A lot of reality TV is artifice -- you can just feel the wheels turning," she says. "But when it's really real, that's when you have the opportunity to create a true emotional connection with the audience."

But tabloid headlines don't always help a show. In November 2007, A&E's "Dog the Bounty Hunter" drew attention when its star was caught on tape blathering racial epithets. Here, the long-term damage to the series -- now only a marginal ratings earner -- probably outstripped any momentary viewing boost associated with the controversy.

"It's dangerous because sometimes the controversy can be so big, even though you get a ratings spike, you don't get to reap the rewards of it because it takes over your show and it unravels," Smith says. "You want your shows to get attention, but you want to be able to control it. Good controversy is something that happens within the context of the show that isn't bigger than the show itself."

Hovering over everything is the moral question of how camera crews are affecting participants in times of personal crisis.

"It's a question of, if we keep shooting, what's going to happen?" says Andy Cohen, senior vp original programming and development at Bravo, which in 2007 was forced to confront the sudden death of trainer Doug Blasdell, star of its hit series "Work Out." "It's not worth exploiting something for a quick number if you're going to really wind up destroying someone's life."

Then again, another network exec adds, "You can never walk away from a hit, especially one that delivers 10.6 million viewers."
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