Cablers snap up celeb shutterbugs

Summer bakes with shows from E! and AMC; VH1, HBO also in hunt

It is a green and grainy image through a night-vision lens, but the subject of surveillance is in plain sight — J.Lo applying makeup in her car. This is just one of the many stolen moments featured in E!’s new show, “Celebrities Uncensored.”

This summer, a slew of cablers is featuring shows on the working lives of paparazzi photographers:

  • Beyond E!’s “Celebrity Uncensored,” A&E has repurposed ongoing, open-ended series “Paparazzi” from sister net Biography.

  • AMC will debut “The Hollywood Hunt Club” in August as part of its AMC Project; the special expands into a series in October.

  • VH1’s “Red Hot Red Carpet” and HBO’s “On the Record” with Bob Costas have also featured frenzied photographers within the last few weeks.

Besides being the perfect compliment to lazy summer weather, why focus on those who focus their lenses on others? Blame reality television and society’s belief that famous people are fair game. Together, it was only inevitable that TV would stretch to any length to chronicle the lives of anyone involved in the biz.

“It’s the whole behind-the-curtain thing. People are just now fleshing it out to the behind-the-scene makers,” says veteran publicist Nancy Kane of Susan Magrino agency. “Now they’re going for people the audience can relate to. And with no continuation of plot, they can repeat better.”

Although the shows have a similar theme, they are not identical. E’s “Celebrities Uncensored” revels in the candid antics of the stars caught off-guard in heightened situations. A&E’s program documents the photographer at work, from tracking to shooting, as AMC’s will.

“America is being conditioned to feed off the real — this is the hyper-real,” says Evans Ward of celebrity photo agency Film Magic, which works in concert with handlers. “This is amazing celebrity content with no production costs and no publicists.”

E!’s Mark Sonnenberg, exec VP of entertainment, feels his show is just an extension of the high price of fame. “It’s raw and revealing,” he concedes, “but it lets the fan at home see what it’s like to be a celebrity. It gives the audience a chance to have a little sympathy for the stars and what they have to go through.”

More than 700,000 sympathetic adults 18-49 tuned in premiere night, nearly double the delivery of the same slot last year. Each encore has built on its lead in and averages 540,000 adults 18-49. On A&E, each segment of “Paparazzi” also averages more than a half-million viewers.

Since “Hollywood Hunt Club” originated as part of another series about Hollywood, AMC’s Rob Sorcher is hesitant to lump his show with all the others.

“It’s a smarter take on the human stories,” he says. “We’re more interested in a particular style and point of view in the way it’s told. Here we’re seeing an accurate documentation of what goes on with an emphasis on the characters — the guys taking the pictures.”

(To complement the insider feel, show will be paired this fall with the Peter Bart/Peter Guber series “Sunday Morning Shoot Out.”)

Media professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse U. admires this ride-along tactic, which simultaneously allows networks to keep on the right side of a moral quandary and still deliver the goods.

“It’s very clever — a way to have your cake and eat it, too,” he says. “Focusing on the working life, as opposed to sending out your own crew is a way to distance yourself. One takes a higher moral ground, but in the end, I’m not sure how different it is.”

Even if most cable programmers are siding with the public’s need to know, at least on film, empathy lies with the stars. In feature film production at Fox is “Paparazzi” starring Cole Hauser. In that instance, a movie star hounded and hurt by tabloid photographers plots revenge.