New skeins showcase the warmer, fuzzier side of stardom
If reality TV teaches us anything, it’s that anyone can become a celebrity. The flip side of that is the reassuring notion that celebrities — except for the entourage of agents, assistants and publicists — are really just like you.Oh, and one more thing: Some of the companies pushing this uplifting image of stars also contribute to an environment where paparazzi peer over their fences and sift through their trash. To capture this strange relationship between media conglomerates and celebrities, think of the Don Henley song “Dirty Laundry,” only with a new chorus — something like, “Exploit ‘em when they’re up, exploit ‘em when they’re down.” And if they wind up exploiting you back a bit, that’s OK, too. The latest strain of unscripted celeb series showcases the warmer, fuzzier side of stardom. Examples include CBS’ summer fill-in “Same Name” (where celebs temporarily swap lives with eponymous ordinary folks) and the CW’s upcoming “H8r,” creating a forum for personalities to meet and charm somebody who bad-mouthed them online. Exec producer Mike Fleiss explained “H8r” this way at the TV Critics Assn. tour: “For the celebrity, it’s a chance for them to rehabilitate their personal image. So much is written about them and shown of them on TMZ and whatnot. So they get sort of dragged through the mud whenever anything goes wrong in their life, but this is a chance to … show … the other side of the person, the real person behind the celebrity.” Celebrities “have feelings too,” added host-producer Mario Lopez. One small footnote: “H8r” comes from Telepictures, the Warner Bros. unit that also happens to produce TMZ — a big part of the “dragged through the mud,” shove-cameras-in-their-face celebrity culture. The same TMZ, incidentally, where you can find “exclusive” details for the upcoming premiere of Warner Bros.’ “Two and a Half Men.” Warner Bros. is hardly the only studio guilty of contradictory behavior. Yet while such associations can become a soft underbelly for media behemoths, top-line talent seldom bothers to take a swing at it. Amid allegations of phone hacking in the News of the World scandal, there’s been scant talk of retaliation against Fox. Compare that to the mid-1990s, when George Clooney grew tired of being harassed by another tabloid show, “Hard Copy,” and threatened to boycott its sister Paramount series “Entertainment Tonight” unless execs called off the dogs. Paramount not only retreated but put its pledge in writing, promising Clooney, “We agree that ‘Hard Copy’ will not be covering you in any future stories.” He made the letter public and called upon other stars to adopt a similar strategy. Because celebs remain such a marketable commodity, studios surely seem vulnerable to such pressure points. That’s especially true given the hunger for unguarded access to luminaries — such as the more lovable side “H8r” purports to represent. Clearly, celebrity news and programming is big business. Beyond Warner Bros.’ multi-tentacled approach, NBC Universal is expected to redeploy its merged showbiz-news holdings — including E! and “Access Hollywood” — into an orchestrated force, following the recent integration of Comcast’s sports channels with NBC Sports. What all these ventures share is the perceived value and power of celebrity. Even ABC’s “Nightline” — again squandering its occasional primetime platform with inconsequential fluff — will air an hour tonight subtitled “Celebrity Secrets: Underage and Famous,” promising a peek inside “the world of teenage and child stars.” Thanks to the twin appetites for celebrity and inexpensive programming, certain performers appear destined to live their entire lives on camera. Take the Kardashian clan (please), with E! announcing plans to package Kim’s wedding into a two-night televised event. All that’s missing is the prenup negotiation. Clooney demonstrated the clout celebrities can wield if they decide to push back, leveraging studio assets against each other. Barring such orchestrated blowback, however, celebrity exaltation and exploitation will continue to go hand in hand, leaving entities like Telepictures mirroring E!’s role at Kardashian’s ceremony — trying to photograph their cake, and eat it too.