The Paris Hilton Effect

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Susan Zeller.
January 1, 2004

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Susan Zeller.

Many of your kind condolences mentioned how much you enjoyed Susan’s editorials, which meant a lot to her family and to the gang here at RealScreen.

Susan used to bounce some of those editorials off me, and to no longer have that pleasure is difficult to come to grips with. I would definitely have sought her opinion on this, my first RealScreen editorial. I can only hope she would approve…

In this issue, we look at formats. Oh my, you say, how novel. Well, suck it up – everyone else is glued to them, so programmers are still treating them like life rafts on sinking schedules. Ten Network’s fortunes grew 37% in its last quarter, attributed to the success of Big Brother and Australian Idol, and has an Oz version of Queer Eye on tap. So, while you may decry globalization of airwaves and lowest common denominator cop-out, you might as well just focus on whether your projects are ready to go head to head with Paris Hilton.

While the heiress vehicle The Simple Life, which debuted on Fox in the U.S. last month, is not revolutionary, it, like many new reality entries, continues to evolve TV expectations. As the fabulously wealthy and simple-task-challenged Hilton and best pal Nicole Richie (Lionel’s girl) spend seven episodes’ worth of their lives on a farm in Arkansas, the fish-out-of-water stakes have just been raised to gossip-column-calibre celeb casting, not to mention channeling the entertainment value of Green Acres and Internet porn.

However, Bunim/Murray Productions, which coproduces The Simple Life with 20th Century Fox, has a new reality hybrid on NBC that is perhaps more revolutionary in scope. Starting Over is an inspirational series that shows the daily struggles of women who want to change their lives, and in a throw-back to its reality ancestors, some do get booted from the communal abode. What’s interesting here, and explored in ”Soaprah’ Formula’ (pg. 40), is how daytime reality is being tested as a network alternative to soaps and talkers, and whether a hybrid like NBC’s entry has legs.

Other tips on the format front can be had in our Packaging report – a Q&A with William Morris Agency reality topper Mark Itkin advises on how to hook up your format with a U.S. network deal and gives a heads-up on the direction development tastes are heading. And, since celebrities are spreading out from their respective fields to invade all areas of our waking lives, we also take a look at the current value of star power in traditional non-fiction fare.

The other, more insidious reality creep is how the extremity aspect of the escalating format wars is altering expectations for traditional docs. You may smirk when you hear that ABC’s Celebrity Mole Yucatan stars Dennis Rodman, a Baldwin brother (Stephen) and a Cosby kid (Keshia Knight Pulliam), but odds are its inherent weirdness will ensnare clickers when it bows this month. Ditto for the Donald Trump vehicle The Apprentice, a Mark Burnett brainchild for NBC in which hopefuls vie for a gig with the real estate mogul, who promised The Hollywood Reporter, ‘It’s very vicious. Very. Things are gonna happen that are really hard core.’

The extent to which reality is reshaping sensibilities can be seen as far afield as Nat Geo, whose U.S. format Worlds Apart, wherein a middle-America family (with teens) is sent to dwell with a Third World family is not sooo far apart from The Simple Life premise. Perhaps the effect of this barrage is impossible to deflect; however, when one of the more exciting IDFA pitches sounds reality-premise reminiscent, it’s time for a reality check.

I’m not saying evolution is bad, just wondering whether non-fiction players emulating the wacky world of reality – which Itkin already finds dangerously carnivorous – is the best defense. Unless you have Hilton on your team…


Mary Maddever

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