Turning 15 Minutes
of Fame Into 30
Something is not quite right about the “reality” on reality TV—while the genre is not exactly fictional, not many people live their lives exclusively on the Jersey Shore or put their romances in the hands of a production team. Increasingly, reality TV personalities, such as the Kardashians, the Osbournes, contestants on The Bachelor and the anxious warblers on various musical competitions, have taken their 15 minutes of fame and run with it.
In 1973, 10 million people tuned in to watch the Louds, stars of the PBS show An American Family. There was no reason to watch this middle-class California clan—no grisly murders, no sex scandals. No reason except that their real-life domestic squabbles and mundane habits were being broadcast on national TV, marking the beginning of reality television. After An American Family aired, the Louds appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to voice their displeasure at how 300 hours of footage had been edited down to a distorted representation of their lives. Cavett said, “No other American family has been through this.”
Today families clamor to air their dirty laundry for anyone who may be interested. In 2007 L.A. socialite Kim Kardashian conquered the tabloids after her sex tape leaked to the internet. In the wake of pornographic fame, Kim and her family began taping Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The show became a huge hit, leading to three spin-offs and a chain of fashion boutiques. As the Kardashians extend their 15 minutes of fame into 30 and beyond, they have garnered more and more power. Unlike the Louds, they are now in control of what makes the cut.
In The Truman Show, protagonist Truman Burbank’s every movement is filmed on an elaborate set built to resemble an American suburb. Yet Truman (Jim Carrey) has no idea he is the star of the most popular show on television. He thinks his life is real, his choices self-determined. But his neighbors and lifelong friends are hired actors, his job a fantasy, his marriage a sham. As the show’s creator, Christof (played by Ed Harris), pontificates, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” When Truman discovers the deception, he is understandably outraged and stages a daring escape.
The Truman Show came out six years after MTV’s first season of The Real World, which ushered in the modern era of reality television. Today celebrities such as Kim Kardashian willingly endure Truman’s plight, but sometimes the presence of all those cameras calls into question the realness of “real life.” In 2011 Kardashian married professional basketballer Kris Humphries in an extravagant ceremony broadcast for all to see. When Kardashian filed divorce papers after a mere 72 days of marital bliss, accusations whizzed through the media that the wedding was staged to boost ratings. Even Humphries complained he’d been duped.
Television producers are not ideal matchmakers. In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank’s wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), is chosen for him by one such mastermind, and the marriage is an unsatisfying one. Truman is unaware that his wife is an actor exploiting their conversations to advertise products for the show’s sponsors. And instead of playing the doting husband, Truman spends his days searching for a girl he met by chance long ago and fell in love with (she was also an actor, fired for threatening to enlighten Truman).
In the real world—well, the reality TV world—Mike Fleiss, producer of The Bachelor, has not had much more luck playing Cupid. Each season follows a single man on his quest to marry. Unlike Truman, Fleiss’s bachelors get to choose their wife from a pool of potential soul mates. But is all that “free will” just phony? A former contestant, Megan Parris, claims the show is scripted. And even Fleiss has admitted he tries to “develop characters that the audience is going to root for and root against.” Real or not, the first 18 seasons of The Bachelor have produced a number of relationships—but only three couples remain together.
An American Family shocked the nation. The household’s eldest son, Lance Loud, came out as gay—a first in the annals of TV—and the show chronicled the unraveling of Bill and Pat Loud’s marriage. In the 1970s homosexuality and divorce were nowhere near socially acceptable. Twenty years later MTV’s groundbreaking series The Real World (inspired by An American Family) followed gay rights activist Pedro Zamora in the months before he died from AIDS, at a time when a persistent stigma was still attached to the disease.
Today’s reality television overwhelms us with explicit details (consider the Kardashian sisters revealing their startling vaginal habits involving mayonnaise), but the actual drama feels less real and therefore tamer. The Bachelor represents romance as a fairy tale, with would-be brides gushing about perfect dates over a soundtrack of weeping string instruments. A girl who “survives” the episode receives a red rose, but each breakup is a purple affair: the walkout of shame followed by a crying spell in the backseat of a limo. Most seasons conclude with a softly lit proposal, but as of yet no Bachelor spin-off depicts the real story: the inevitable separation that takes place once the cameras stop rolling.
In The Bachelor’s first season, Trista Rehn was the runner-up for Alex Michel’s connubial intentions. Although she did not win a marriage proposal, she endeared herself to ABC executives and the show’s heartsick fanatics. The next year she starred in a spin-off, The Bachelorette, and found her future husband, Ryan Sutter. When Trista and Ryan hit the 10-year mark, they became the longest-married couple to have met in either competition.
While these contests of the heart don’t yield many lasting relationships, they do inspire a lot more television. Another spin-off, The Bachelor Pad, debuted in 2010 with cast-off contestants from both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette scheming against one another and generally hooking up. And 10 countries besides the U.S. have produced versions of The Bachelor, including Canada, Israel, Romania and Ukraine. Most of these spin-offs feel almost like spoofs of the original, but at least one deliberately plays its romantic shenanigans for laughs. The web series Burning Love follows a group of deranged caricatures—played by Ben Stiller, Kristen Bell, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston in a panda suit, to name a few—in a Bachelor-esque scenario. Ah, love.
Ozzy Osbourne gained notoriety as lead singer of the band Black Sabbath and later as a solo artist, during a career that found him biting the head off a bat onstage. But his role as patriarch on MTV reality show The Osbournes propelled him and his family into the remunerative world of tabloid celebrity. Every week hordes of viewers watched as the addled English rocker mumbled incomprehensibly or struggled to line a trash can. Ozzy claims to have been stoned throughout the entire three-year run. But the show made a superstar out of Ozzy’s wife. After getting her own chat program, The Sharon Osbourne Show, Sharon went on to cohost such megahits as The X Factor and The Talk. And as her husband’s manager (and cofounder of the yearly Ozzfest tour), Sharon single-handedly revived Ozzy’s music career.
In 2009 the family reunited for a variety show, Osbournes Reloaded. Regarded as one of the worst programs ever broadcast, it was canceled after a single episode. But The Osbournes inspired fellow rocker Gene Simmons (of Kiss) and pro wrestler Hulk Hogan to put their own families in front of the cameras.
Known as the Prince of Darkness and the Godfather of Heavy Metal, Ozzy Osbourne had seemingly mislaid his darkling influence when he made the move to reality television. Nowadays, that wildfire medium is more an entrance into the musical world than an exit, largely because of another reality show that premiered in 2002: Fox’s American Idol. Hosted by now ubiquitous radio and television personality Ryan Seacrest, the singing competition has turned hopeful amateurs into overnight sensations. Kelly Clarkson, a small-time Texas crooner who won the show’s first season, now has three Grammy Awards and regularly tops the charts with new albums. Carrie Underwood, a farm girl from Oklahoma who won the fourth season, has collected six Grammies.
For the aging legends of music, this new path to fame is not necessarily a welcome one. When asked about Idol, Ozzy replied, “I cannot watch that shit.” This, despite his own wife and manager, Sharon, having hosted Idol’s rival The X Factor. But Ozzy does credit Sharon with his three big-selling solo albums released since The Osbournes. And Ozzy’s daughter, Kelly, also lifted into the limelight by their show, released her own album, Shut Up, in 2002.
The success of American Idol has produced a legion of spin-offs. Afghan Star searches for the bright young voices of Afghanistan, while Nepali Tara combs Nepal for tonal prodigies. But none has matched the popularity of Idol. Except, that is, for The Voice, which premiered on NBC in 2011, headlined by superstars Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and CeeLo Green. In 2013 the newcomer finally bested Idol’s ratings—will it be the next musical contest to hit the spin-off jackpot?
The man who has made the most hay from the lucrative business of reality musical competition is media mogul Simon Cowell, one of American Idol’s original judges. The Brit made a name for himself with his scathing insults to aspiring songsters. “You have just invented a new form of torture,” he told one hopeful. “You sound like Cher after she’s been to a dentist,” he told another. Not one to limit his verbal prowess and cunning entrepreneurialism, Cowell expanded from Idol to several copycat shows, such as The X Factor, America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent, ensuring that a whole new generation of up-and-comers will live in breathless terror of his judgment.