A history of reality television (part seven): Celebreality - VIDEOS
Americans are utterly obsessed with celebrities ... particularly their lives away from the limelight. Numerous television "news" programs and magazines highlight stars doing normal things that many of us would do on a daily basis. So, it was only logical that reality series have been built around some of these personalities to highlight their time away from the camera.
Yet it didn't work out as was intended. Rather than showing that these personalities were normal people, they showed the viewers how messed up they, and their families, really were. In some of the earlier Celebreality programs, they even showed unknown weaknesses that fans never knew existed. Despite all of this, viewers have been tuning into these shows each and every week to watch ... just like they would if video of different train wrecks were aired each week.
This fan base has given many of these stars a second, third, or fourth chance at success -- even if their boat sailed a long time ago. Such is the case during the Reality Revolution, where even the most famous can receive fifteen more minutes of fame.
The earliest version of Celebreality can be tracked back to the Ralph Edwards hosted This is Your Life. On this documentary-style program, a celebrity or public figure's biography would be told while that person sat on a theater stage in front of a live television and studio audience. Normally, that person would be "hijacked" into the theater during the first commercial break. Although, many of them knew ahead of time that they would be appearing on the show.
During the reading of the biography, the subject would reunite with old acquaintances, meet up with family members, and sadly reflect when a tragic episode of their life was retold. For most subjects, This is Your Life was a pleasant experience that brought back many memories, even though they initially were a bit miffed at being "hijacked" into the theater. Despite pushing the subjects into the theater, This is Your Life, was a gentle reality-based program that would probably not work in the world of today's Reality Revolution.
The first two Celebreality shows of the modern age appeared a few short months after each other in 2002. The first, MTV's The Osbournes, premiered in March of that year and starred heavy metal singer Ozzy Osborne and his family. The show portrayed Osborne as a dedicated family man to wife Sharon, son Jack and daughter Kelly. Another daughter, Aimee, refused to participate in the show. In addition to exploring the routine days of a heavy metal singer and his family, the show also focused on major events such as Sharon's battle with cancer and Ozzy's near-death ATV accident.
The Osbournes was a huge hit for MTV and, as reality shows tend to do, it made stars of the rest of Ozzy's family. Particularly headstrong Sharon, who went on to host her own talk show as well as become a judge on America's Got Talent. Yet, the show was heavily criticized, mostly for its use of foul language on the show. Not only was it prevalent from both Ozzy and Sharon, but the kids also displayed a good bit of dirty mouth during the show's run. Eventually, their use of foul language was parodied on other comedy shows and movies. But, it also set the precedent for other reality shows to allow their subjects to use that language as well.
Five months after The Osbournes premiered, The Anna Nicole Show took its bow on the E! network. Anna Nicole starred former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith and her current adventures as a obese single mother who was in precarious financial straits (at least during the beginning of the series). Billed as a reality sitcom, the show was more like an examination in the downfall of a former starlet. Many episodes featured a heavily-drugged and barely understandable Anna Nicole in various awkward situations with her family, entourage or the public.
Anna Nicole was one of the first shows that addressed the question of what was reality and what was scripted. While most of the interactions between Anna and others were unscripted, the situations she was involved in -- going to a dating service, going shopping with a friend, having an eating contest at an Italian restaurant -- were all pre-planned. Despite this, the show was a success for E!, garnering it the highest ratings for a premiere the network ever had. While they began to fall after the premiere, The Anna Nicole Show remained a staple on the network until its cancellation in 2004.
Meanwhile, back on MTV, performers Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachley decided to take the plunge into reality programming with their series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. This series, also premiering in 2003, focused on the new marriage between Simpson and Lachley and how two famous people like them could live normal lives. However, this is not what allowed to show to gain in popularity. That was courtesy of Jessica's "dumb blonde" persona, which tended to dominate each episode of the series.
The quintessential "dumb blonde" moment came during the very first episode. While eating tuna from a can of Chicken of the Sea, Jessica wondered if she was eating chicken or tuna at the time. These moments made the couple household names (although, both were famous previously as pop singers). Yet, it also hurt their marriage as the cameras never allowed the two to get too intimate and really discuss where their relationship was heading. Shortly after the series ended in 2005 the couple filed for divorce, which was finalized a year later.
The "dumb blonde" Celebreality fad continued on FOX with the introduction of The Simple Life. Featuring wealthy young socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, the "reality sitcom" focused on the two as they traveled the country performing menial tasks like serving fast-food meals, working as camp counselors and cleaning hotel rooms. The show was a hit for FOX during the first few seasons and made Hilton and Richie instant stars. Eventually, FOX canceled the show. However it was picked up by E! during the last season, which was heavily criticized for being more scripted and less of a reality program. By 2007, the show had run its course. Yet, stars Hilton and Richie remained in the spotlight.
Even game show hosts got into the act of Celebreality. The same year that Nick and Jessica and The Simple Life premiered. GSN began airing a reality program about long-time game show host Chuck Woolery. Titled Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned, the series focused on Woolery's life both on and off the sound stage. This included trips to the warehouse store for his favorite cottage cheese, selling his brand of bass lures on QVC, and the relationships with his family and his third wife. A cleaner version of The Osbournes, Naturally Stoned didn't catch on with the GSN viewers. After the last episode aired the show was never renewed.
Until 2003 Celebreality featured a mix of up-and-coming celebrities as well as those that were currently, or were on the verge of, being washed up. Something changed at that point, though, as producers of these shows decided that past-their-prime personalities were the ones to drive the this reality genre...particularly on cable. So, in addition to shows featuring Anna Nicole and Ozzy Osbourne, producers gave viewers The Surreal Life.
Originally airing on the WB then moving over to VH1, The Surreal Life borrowed its concept from veteran reality programs The Real World and Road Rules. However, instead of strangers being placed together, a group of former celebrities lived together and participated in group activities. During the first season of the show castmates included Corey Feldman, Motley Crue's Vince Neil, Webster's Emmanuel Lewis, and rapper MC Hammer. Other seasons featured the late Tammy Faye Messner, porn star Ron Jeremy, rappers Vanilla Ice and Flavor Flav, Brigitte Nielsen, Adrianne Curry, and The Brady Bunch's Christopher Knight.
Over the seasons, Surreal Life has produced a number of spin-offs for VH1. The romantic relationship that began between Nielsen and Flav in season three of the show spun-off into the series Strange Love. That series begat the Flavor Flav reality game opera Flavor of Love. Season Four's romantic pair of Adrianne Curry and Christopher Knight moved on to their own series named My Fair Brady. This series traced the couple's tumultuous relationship leading up to and after their marriage.
With so many reality programs featuring celebrities, VH1 became the cable home to many Celebreality shows, with E! in a close second. In addition to the shows already mentioned, VH1 at one time has aired reality programs featuring The Partridge Family's Danny Bonaduce (Breaking Bonaduce), singer Carnie Wilson (Celebracadabra), Taxi's Jeff Conway (Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew), wrestler Hulk Hogan (Hogan Knows Best), Happy Days' Scott Baio (Scott Baio is...), actor Tom Sizemore (Shooting Sizemore), and Poison front man Bret Michael's (Rock of Love). They even have a lifestyle change series imported from the UK called Celebrity Fit Club, which follows eight overweight celebrities as they try to lose weight.
E!'s Celebreality fare features personalities with a little less stature than those on VH1. In addition to previously airing The Anna Nicole Show and The Simple Life, E! currently features shows like Denise Richards:It's Complicated, which stars the former wife of Charlie Sheen as she navigates her life as Hollywood starlet and single mother. Also on E!'s schedule are The Girls Next Door, about Hugh Hefner and his life at the Playboy Mansion, and Living Lohan, which is the story about Dina Lohan's quest to get Lindsay's younger sister Ali into show business. Even former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner has his own Celebreality series on E! with Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
VH1 and E! have not had the monopoly on Celebreality programming since its inception. Several other cable networks, and even one of the original Big Three networks, have dabbled with celebrity reality programming. Sometimes with success, other times not. For instance, in 2005 NBC premiered Tommy Lee Goes To College, which starred Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee as he attended the University of Nebraska. Bravo covered the spectrum of celebrity with Being Bobby Brown, starring the controversial singer, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, which follows the actress as she climbs the Hollywood ladder to stardom, and Hey Paula, which featured the wacky adventures of American Idol judge Paula Abdul. Finally, over on A&E is Gene Simmons Family Jewels, which is probably the most unrealistic reality show on television today.
Celebreality will remain a standard during the Reality Revolution and beyond. Where else can a personality resurrect their career and promote their next big thing and get paid for it to boot. As long as networks like VH1 and E! comprise their schedules of this type of programming we will continue to tune in and watch. That is, until viewers realize that there lives are much more interesting than those of the celebrities and their families.