Illness, addiction stand out

People's foibles keep reality auds coming back for more

It doesn’t take a makeover, heirloom appraisals, celebrities or a smooth-talking dog whisperer to garner reality ratings. Addiction, mental illness, conspicuous consumption and petty arguments also do the trick. Viewers can’t seem to get enough of human shortcomings or women whose mouths are as big as their hair.

A&E’s “Intervention” often examines drug addicts near death, while “Hoarders” looks at individuals practically suffocating themselves and their families with unnecessary belongings. While some critics argue that the shows are exploitative, tacky and downright vulgar, auds find watching people confront their inner demons extremely engrossing.

Since its 2005 debut, “Intervention” ratings have steadily increased. The eighth season opener in December drew 2.5 million, a 14% increase from the previous season’s debut episode, while the second season of “Hoarders” opened with 3.2 million viewers.

“I think what is most riveting about both shows is that they are completely real,” says Robert Sharenow, senior VP of nonfiction and alternative programming at A&E. “I think audiences hunger for authenticity and drama. We are not putting a bunch of people in the same house or on an island. Instead, these are real people in their real lives.”

“Hoarders” and “Intervention,” which took home the reality programming Emmy last year, have been so successful for the net that it’s adding two new addiction-beating skeins — “Intervention in Depth: One-Man Rehab” and “I’m Heavy” to their unscripted roster.

A&E is, of course, only one cabler to focus on the issues that many suffer.

VH1 debuted “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” in 2008, followed by “Sober House” and “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew” in 2009.

“There is something compelling about watching people struggling through life and trying to get to the other side,” says Jeff Olde, VH1 exec VP of original programming and production. “(The success) of the shows has let us know that if we tell a great story that is authentic and is giving the audience the real deal, viewers will go along for the ride. I also think viewers respond to the hopeful message of the show, which is, there is something better at the end.”

While the idea that there is life at the end of the tunnel rings loud and clear on addiction shows, the message behind Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club,” MTVs “Jersey Shore” and Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise isn’t so obvious.

But Bravo’s Andy Cohen, senior VP of original programming and development, says people tune in to “Housewives” not necessarily for a message, but to watch a certain slice of life.

“I always call the show the sociology of the rich,” Cohen says. “We are representing a certain group of women who live lives some would consider to be aspirational or glamorous. I think people are very attracted to that because they are shocked, entertained, and it’s fun. It’s like an unscripted ‘Knots Landing,’ and people watched that for 14 seasons.”

Averaging 2.5 million viewers per episode, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” finished its rookie year last June as the highest-rated performer in the franchise. Meanwhile in January, the finale of “Jersey Shore” attracted 4.8 million viewers to MTV, and Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club” became the cabler’s first program to draw an audience of more than 2 million.

“I meet a lot of really intelligent people who have very impressive jobs who say to me, ‘I’m afraid to admit it, but “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” is my absolute passion,’ and I say, ‘Look, it’s a great guilty pleasure. Enjoy it. Fly the flag,'” Cohen says. “At best, it’s water-cooler excitement, and at worst, it’s something that is addictive and harmless.”

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