Audience and critics admire authentic vibe
Kathy Griffin. Cesar Millan. Anthony Bourdain. They and their shows couldn’t be more different in style and subject, but these masters of television’s unscripted and semiscripted milieu all bring their audiences the same thing: a distinct perspective that viewers trust as authentic.
Auds bank on such unscripted stars as Griffin, Millan and Bourdain by watching them navigate hurdles no one could predict, and with their own unique authority.
“It’s a first-person essay always,” says Bourdain of his “No Reservations,” which is nominated for a nonfiction series Emmy. “I have the luxury of being honest or cranky or happy or unhappy or drunk. If I hate a city or I hate the food, I have the freedom to say so. I don’t have to pretend things are great all the time.”
Griffin — whose “My Life on the D-List” received a nod for reality program — hasn’t held back, even when it meant that her visit to the Apollo Theater in a recent episode ended with her being yelled at by the stage manager over a tawdry zinger and receiving a letter banning her from ever returning.
“Either I can play by the rules and the two people who make up those rules, or I can play for everyone else and be honest and make them laugh,” Griffin says. “I think I can say the things I say — whether I’m in Iraq or at Walter Reed — because people know my only agenda is that I want them to laugh.”
Millan — whose “Dog Whisperer” is a nominee in the reality program category — is also trying to tease out the truth of a situation with his own methods when he enters the house of someone who’s struggling with a pet.
“Americans needed some kind of common sense,” says Millan of the rationalizing people do when it comes to a dog’s actions. “That’s my simple way of saying it.”
Of course, sometimes honesty is not enough in television. It often helps to have a little something extra if you want viewers to come back.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve never seen someone as charismatic as Cesar,” says Michael Cascio, senior vice president of production for National Geographic Channel. “The audience can see that what he does works, but it’s the way he does everything that makes it interesting to watch again and again, and it’s very intimate to watch someone deal with the relationship with their dog.”
Frances Berwick, Bravo’s general manager, believes Griffin creates a sense of closeness with her audience that keeps them loyal by pulling back the veil on what her daily life is like and not pretending that all is perfect.
“You’re given this view of a celebrity life, but it’s told from the perspective of someone who seems more like all of us,” Berwick says, “You see her talking about how much her feet hurt on the red carpet and trying to find her next gig.”
“No Reservations” exec producer Charlie Parsons thinks viewers stick with Bourdain for similar reasons.
“Viewers can smell a rat,” Parsons says. “They know when something isn’t for real, and they want to know that this person whose perspective they’ve decided they like is being honest with them about what they’re seeing because, otherwise, what’s the point of watching?”