As television networks unveiled their spring programming, they unleashed an avalanche of docuseries helmed by familiar faces. And while a hunger for celebrity-driven storytelling is not a new phenomenon, using recognizable faces to shine light on newsy subject matters appears to have gained popularity since the Emmy-winning Scientology exposé, “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.”
Following the success of Remini’s series, A&E joins forces with Marcia Clark in its expansion of the “First 48” format. This series, entitled “Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48,” takes a look at unsolved crimes that have long dominated cable, including the case of Casey Anthony, the murder of Robert Blake’s wife and the disappearance of Drew Peterson’s wife, Stacy.
“When you take a franchise like ‘The First 48,’ which is the gold star in this kind of true crime, and then you attach someone like Marcia Clark with a baked-in IP, who is just fierce for her quest for the truth, she elevates it,” says Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive vice president and head of programming at A&E. “We saw [it work] with ‘Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.’ It’s their journey, their own quest to find the truth in their own subject of interest. We are hoping that we’re going to find similar success [with Marcia].”
Another expansion of an existing brand is the crime series “Mysteries & Scandals” on Oxygen, which has host Soledad O’Brien looking into O.J. Simpson’s Las Vegas robbery, as well as what led to the deaths of Michael Jackson, Bobbi Kristina Brown and Anna Nicole Smith, among other cases.
“When we were rebranding into a true crime network, we saw the value in looking at well-known cases, whether they were celebrity driven or killings that dominated pop culture and news headlines,” says Rod Aissa, executive vice president, programming and development at Oxygen. “And if we could find the right talent, we could take a look at it through a different lens.”
Adding O’Brien as host brings in a viewership that has followed her since her days at CNN, but also gives both the show and the network credibility, according to Aissa.
“It allows viewers who know the quality and integrity that she puts into her work to come and see our network and experience these stories through her,” he says.
Recognizable names, whether the host or the subject matter, have an added benefit: they travel well. National Geographic has this built-in awareness with “America Inside Out With Katie Couric,” as do Netflix, with new foodie series “Somebody Feed Phil” from “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal, and Showtime, with its upcoming documentary “XY Chelsea,” which follows former soldier Chelsea Manning post-prison.
“U.S. pop culture and Hollywood, it sells. These personalities translate, and there’s recognition to their name. Usually a star in the United States is probably also a big star across the pond, so our international partners are very interested.”
A familiar face can also allow for a more accessible entry point where the subject matter is difficult one. Docuseries “Citizen Rose” shines a light on sexual assault through the lens of Rose McGowan, who accused Harvey Weinstein of rape last fall.
“U.S. pop culture and Hollywood, it sells. These personalities translate, and there’s recognition to their name.”
“I, personally, was intrigued by her and her story and the fact she’s been talking, but nobody has been listening,” says Andrea Metz, executive producer and showrunner of “Citizen Rose.” “I think that there are a lot of women all around the world who don’t have the platform that Rose has, who don’t have the means to be able to do what she can do. I’m hoping that this can help women see what Rose is doing and be brave enough, as she has done, to step forward and say to their abuser, ‘No.’”
(Weinstein is not facing any charges at this time. )
Also using a celebrity platform to draw attention to a cause is the series “Meet the Peetes,” Hallmark Channel’s first foray into primetime reality programming.
“We have a special-needs son; we wanted to show his journey,” says series star Holly Robinson Peete. “When our son was diagnosed we felt like, if we were seeing a family who lived that journey, it would have been very positive and uplifting for us.”
Prior to “Meet the Peetes” a version of the show existed on OWN for two seasons. “The biggest difference is just how much [Hallmark is] really embracing our storylines about autism and special needs,” says Robinson Peete. “They get it.”
For Hallmark, to venture beyond scripted content, the protagonists had to be the right fit. “For us, it isn’t as much about celebrity as it is about creating a family of talent. A lot of people don’t work with talent on multiple projects a year, the way we do,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president, programming and publicity at Hallmark. “Do I think people like celebrities? Absolutely. People want to know more about all of the people that we put on our network. We try and make everything incredibly personal. And to have a show about family and make it incredible relatable and every day, while also being somewhat exciting to watch Holly and Rodney, that makes great television.”