Actors have every right to despise reality shows. It is hard enough to get a primetime gig in normal times, but next season, 15 nonfiction programs will litter the primetime landscape, vs. just four in September 2003.
So with their careers on the line, why do so many actors have just as big a weakness for unscripted dramas as the average couch potato?
We’re not talking about Julia Roberts watching Andrew Firestone on “The Bachelor,” Matthew Perry’s parties with the cast of “Friends” to view Trista Rehn on “The Bachelorette” or Ray Romano’s appearance at the “American Idol” finals with his kids. Reality shows will not exactly threaten these A-listers’ living.
But some actors who aren’t being offered millions of dollars for a show or film are ambivalent about the craze, eager to get more scripted series into primetime on the one hand, but fans of the most popular ones on the other. Surprisingly, they remain optimistic about their futures, even with sitcoms at their most diminished presence since the early 1980s.
“It’s kind of a scapegoat for actors to blame on the reality world. There’s still a ton of work,” says Andy Lauer, recently seen in the telepic “Just Desserts” on the Hallmark Channel earlier this year, but is best known as the roller-skating assistant on the former NBC sitcom “Caroline in the City.
“There has been a decrease (in work), but at the same time there’s also been an increase. While reality was up and coming, so were a lot of other narrative series on cable.”
Other actors blame the lack of good scripts and development ideas for the paucity of new sitcoms on television rather than the reality rage.
Primetime is not the only daypart where reality has kept actors and TV personalities waiting tables. Increasingly, alumni of the most popular reality series, such as “Survivor” and “The Bachelor” are getting toeholds on daytime talkshows such as ABC’s “The View” and the entertainment news program “Extra.”
On “The View,” co-exec producer Bill Geddie hired “Survivor: Australia” also-ran Elisabeth Filarski (now Hasselbeck) last year to fill Lisa Ling’s seat over some actors, and news people.
Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey has hired two reality stars: The “Extra” executive producer gave neurologist Sean Kenniff his first post-“Survivor” gig and tapped “Bachelor” runner-up Charlie Maher as an on-air reporter. Kenniff now toils as a medical reporter for WFOR-TV in Miami.
But all three who hired Maher, Kenniff and Hasselbeck insist that their reality backgrounds had nothing to do with their employment. On the contrary, their job applications were met with extreme skepticism.
“When I realized who she was I had to be begged to look at her tape by her agent,” explains Geddie, who says he did not change his mind even after watching Hasselbeck perform on the Style Network’s “The Look for Less” series.
Geddie thought she would lack the skills of more-polished performers, but says Hasselbeck’s easy and lively on-camera manner convinced him she was a perfect foil for Barbara Walters and crew.
“I needed someone who was not overly trained,” Geddie recalls. “Over the course of time at least these reality TV people had not been ruined by their training, whether their news training or acting training, they were kind of fresh and alive.”
Reality stars work the talk and entertainment news auditions in order to get their 16th minute of fame, but Gregorisch-Dempsey says Maher was different than others who had tried out.
“The thing that set Charlie apart is he actually listened. Most people, especially journalists, like to hear themselves talk,” she says, adding that she grabbed Maher after months of trying to fill an opening. “Charlie had this quiet humility, not like the others. He also had this confidence.”
Similarly, Shannon High-Bassalik, news director of WFOR, says she too was dubious when Kenniff’s agent called.
“Credibility and believability are the two most important things for us here,” she says, but Kenniff sparkled.
Even some of the reality vets are surprised where they landed. “Doing something in TV couldn’t have been farther from my mind,” Hasselbeck says. After “Survivor” crazy things started popping up in her mailbox, she adds. Such as? Auditions for a vampire movie for one.
A designer by trade, Hasselbeck admits to feelings of guilt over taking a seat usually held by a performer or newsperson, thoughts that faded only after several months of hard work.
“There are people in the industry working their tails off who would die to be in this job. Part of me felt I just cheated.”