“The Osbournes,” MTV’s month-old reality series about the everyday life of the cheerfully dysfunctional Ozzy Osbourne and his wife and two kids, is shaping up as potentially the biggest comedy hit on basic cable since “South Park.”
The breakout success of the series has taken even the top exec of MTV by surprise.
“We just trained some cameras on the Osbournes in their new house for three or four months with no idea of what would come out the other end,” says Brian Graden, prexy of programming for MTV.
Since the paterfamilias is Ozzy Osbourne, a pop icon of the ’70s and ’80s whose live performances gave new meaning to the term gross-out (his shtick included biting the head off a bat), Graden wasn’t expecting a PBS-type doc on “The American Family.”
But what MTV ended up getting is an original take on family values that’s pulling in viewers, not only the cabler’s target audience of 12- to 24-year-olds but also their baby-boomer parents who were fans of Osbourne during his hard-rock heyday.
MTV refused to divulge how much the show costs or if it was paying the Osbournes.
Lois Curren, the MTV exec in charge of production of “The Osbournes,” says the show appeals to older viewers because they’re bowled over by the sight of the counterculture rebel “doing the mundane things that a normal father and husband would do, like taking out the garbage, trying to operate the vacuum cleaner and yelling at the neighbors to lower the volume on their stereos.”
Teenagers are flocking to the show, even ones who’ve never heard of Ozzy Osbourne, because they identify with Kelly Osbourne, the 17-year- old, and Jack, her 16-year-old brother, says Rod Aissa, VP of talent development for MTV.
Aissa says that young viewers are likely to sit up and take notice during one scene in which Osbourne acts just like the prototypical square suburban dad, “telling his kids before they head out to a party that they shouldn’t do drugs and shouldn’t smoke cigarettes but that they should wear a condom if they have sex.”
The idea to follow the Osbournes around with cameras and microphones originated with their appearance on the MTV series “Cribs,” which visits celeb homes. The Osbournes were so off the wall during their appearance that MTV sounded out Osbourne’s wife, Sharon, about doing something else. When MTV’s staff found out that the Osbournes were preparing to move into a new house, the design for the series was born, starting with the family trauma of coping with a change of address.
Curren swears that all the byplay in the “Osbournes” series is unscripted.
But in the editing of the raw footage, Curren says a staff of experienced comedy producers — Jeff Stilson (“Ellen”), , Sue Kolinsky (“Sex and the City”), Henriette Mantel (“Michael Moore’s The Awful Truth”) and Melanie Graham (“Saturday Night Live”) — helps organize the material into humorous, if sometimes disjointed, segments within each half-hour episode.
Although MTV is taken aback by the powerhouse ratings of “The Osbournes” (it was the fourth highest-rated show in all of cable during the week of March 18), the network’s scheduling mavens gave the series plenty of advantages.
The biggest boost was premiering each “Osbournes” half-hour on Tuesday at 10:30 p.m., a gilt-edged time period because its lead-in is MTV’s highest-rated series, “Real World,” which, in its 11th year, is off to one of its best starts ever.
In addition, March 5 is a beneficial time of the year for a new cable series to get a sampling: The February sweeps, including the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, are over, so there won’t be any broadcast net stunts aimed at pulling masses of viewers away from the competition.
But a question is already cropping up: Does “The Osbournes” have a future?
Graden says MTV doesn’t operate like the broadcast networks.
“When they get a hit,” he says, “they try to keep it going for three years, five years, 10 years.” MTV will cancel series like “Jackass” even when they’re still drawing fairly sizable audiences, part of a deliberate strategy by the network to stay ahead of its 12- to 24-years-old viewers, who have the attention span of a hummingbird.
One of the reasons “Real World” has lasted for 11 years is that the cast and setting change every season.
About “The Osbournes,” Curren says if the show’s ratings hold up and Ozzy and his family want to do another 13-episode season, “it’s not out of the question” that MTV would truck the cameras back to the Osbourne home for four more months.
But, Curren adds, “when the material thins out, we’ll stop.”
And MTV has no illusion that every rock performer from the ’70s has a colorful family stashed away, staging ad-lib dress rehearsals as they await the call from MTV to take over as stars of their own reality series.
“We struck gold with the Osbournes,” says Aissa, adding that any further digging in the same vein is likely to yield nothing more substantial than fool’s gold.