The Celebrity-Driven Reality Myth: It’s the Stories, Stupid

A friend sent me a note this morning about a c-list celebrity we know whose potential reality project has finally stalled out.

I wasn’t surprised. The entire sales point of the program was that it would be about the day to day life of this woman who didn’t, in truth, have much going on other than being empirically good-looking and well-compensated in her out-of-the-way corner of the celebrisphere.

For me, just speaking as a viewer, there’s nothing I enjoy less than watching a celebrity seemingly plucked at random and tailed about for three months, yielding non-storylines built around parties, vacation plans or a vacuous blonde friend borrowing a bag and not returning it. It’s painful to watch and the worst kind of celebrity reality.

Celebrity participation alone is not enough to sustain a reality show.

What kind of celebrity shows work for me? Shows like THE SURREAL LIFE or THE CELEBRITY APPRENTICE, where there’s a structure, challenges and something at stake for the participants. You are entering the show at the same point as the participants, enabling you to identify with and invest in them as they take on their challenges.

C-listers pitching shows about themselves often forget an important point about Reality TV:it’s quite effective at making its own celebrities.

You can’t blame them for getting it wrong. You launch a scripted show without at least one known face in it and you’re taking a huge risk. Launch a reality show chock full of fascinating nobodies and it’s still, well, fascinating. Before the shows premiered, had you ever heard of the guys from MYTHBUSTERS? How about the crew from QUEER EYE? Jo from SUPERNANNY? Ty Pennington from EXTREME MAKEOVER: HOME EDITION? Bob and Jillian from THE BIGGEST LOSER?

I always go back to FLIPPING OUT as a great example of a show that featured an interesting group of people whose daily adventures were waaaaay more interesting than those of the average c-lister who’s gunning to revive a career by appearing on a reality show. A few seasons later, Jeff, Jenni and Zoila are well-known. Jenni’s popping up all over tv, Jeff has a line of home goods on QVC, and the last picture I saw of Zoila also had Ryan Seacrest in it.

Viewers make celebrities, and stars come from stories.


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