Ultimate exploitation is the rap reality programs often deal with, but many of the nonfiction entertainment series are used as teaching tools. Just not in that sterile classroom kind of atmosphere.
This is still a business where ratings is the No. 1 barometer of success and failure. However, producers say those ratings come when a show has a fascinating premise, compelling the audience to watch and learn.
To name a few, series such as “Intervention” speaks to drug addiction, “16 and Pregnant” portrays the hard truths behind cute babies and “Hoarders” exposes a mental illness long hidden.
And there’s A&E’s Emmy-winning “Intervention,” which hits on many topics that viewers find not only entertaining but can teach as well.
“Clearly we are touching a chord around the country,” says Dr. Libby O’Connell, the cabler’s senior VP of corporate outreach.
“Intervention” films documentary-style, setting up the personal story of the addict before concluding each episode with a climatic intervention of family, friends and professionals. O’Connell says of the 172 addicts featured in the series, 134 have remained sober.
“Intervention” goes beyond the smallscreen. A&E has set up town hall-type meetings in several states where O’Connell and the show’s therapists meet with the public to help spread the word about addiction, and ways to combat it.
“This is a big commitment for us, but it also became a good affiliate story with our cable partners,” O’Connell explains. “It’s a great relationship builder with both our local affiliates, who set up the meetings, and families all over America.”
The gritty series shows actual drug use by the addicts profiled and manages to avoid glamorizing the lifestyle.
“It’s definitely a balancing act,” says “Intervention” producer Dan Partland. “If you go on that ride, you want to come out on the other side feeling enlightened by that story. No one wants educational entertainment, but everyone wants to feel that hour they invested was worthwhile. We give that to them.”
Jodi Flynn, producer of A&E’s “Hoarders,” says the goal of the show from the beginning was to both entertain and educate. “Hoarders” only focuses on people with the mental disorder, not others who simply get overwhelmed by having too much stuff in their homes. The series offers aftercare help to those featured.
“Just watching this show was a huge learning curve for the public. So many people thought it was an isolated problem,” Flynn says. “They are shocked to see they are not the only ones dealing with this.”
Because the network is working with participants with mental illness, Flynn says there is a heavy reliance on mental health experts.
“We don’t care if it is good TV. If our experts say we can’t do something, we don’t,” Flynn confesses. “The topic is inherently fascinating, so the entertainment happens naturally. It makes it easy not to cross the line when you put their health and well-being first.”
Being held accountable for what they put on the screen seems to be a recurring theme for these producers.
When Lauren Dolgen created and developed MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” the cabler’s development exec knew she wanted to handle the subject of teen pregnancy in a responsible way. So she partnered with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy from the outset.
“(These shows) do a great job of presenting important information in a meaningful way to their audience. Watching an episode is not like a filmstrip in health class,” says Amy R. Kramer of the National Campaign. “It’s done in a relevant way — similar to the other shows teens watch — with the same feel and flavor of being realistic and gritty.”
The organization conducted a public opinion poll showing 82% of the viewers felt “16 and Pregnant” helped teens better understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenting.
Dolgen says it can be upsetting when those looking for splashy headlines and salacious stories take the learning lessons of the show out of context. It’s for that reason she makes sure the teens on the show — and those watching — understand the ramifications of teens having babies.
“The content we provide that must be taken seriously,” Dolgen says. “The most depressing thing is that the tabloids have taken these stories to another place. No one expected the kind of media attention they got, with the tabloids and paparazzi parked in these small towns. They share their stories to help others, and this muddies the message.”
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