Reality and the radio star

As Gene Simmons, Flavor Flav and Bret Michaels have seen, a reality show can be just the ticket for a musician to revitalize a career. Realscreen spoke with series producers and creators to find out which music makers can also make captivating TV stars.
March 1, 2009

The Buggles presciently proclaimed in 1979 that ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ and 30 years later reality TV is in the process of killing the video star. The bruised and battered music industry has hopped aboard the reality programming train and left music videos to save themselves. Former music video-dedicated networks like MTV and VH1 have embraced unscripted programming so much that music video lovers have slim pickings on the tube. Emblematic of the changing times, MTV dropped the decade-old Total Request Live, the music video countdown show that was formerly the cornerstone of its programming.

Today, music video programming has been overtaken by musician-centered reality programming. MTV kicked it off in 2002 with The Osbournes, the wildly popular reality show that followed Ozzy Osbourne and his family. A&E even got on board in 2006 with the docu-reality series centering around KISS’ Gene Simmons’ family life in Gene Simmons Family Jewels, which is now one of its signature series. These shows, among others, have set a precedent for other networks to follow.

BET still has its mainstay, the video countdown show 106 and Park, but in primetime the network pulls in audiences with reality shows like Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is, on its third season, and Brothers to Brutha, which follow an R&B artist’s life and an up-and-coming R&B act, respectively.

BET has always incorporated music into its programming, but has ramped up reality shows in lieu of new video shows. Stephen Hill, president of entertainment and programming at BET, believes it was only natural to air music-oriented reality TV. ‘We looked for ways to expand as video programming on television waned and we still wanted to be involved with musicians and personalities,’ he says.

When taking recording artists out of music videos and into reality show scenarios, it doesn’t matter whether the artist is trying to break out onto the scene, is already established or looking for a comeback; what reigns supreme is charisma. ‘You can’t just put any musician in front of a camera,’ says Hill. ‘They’ve got to have a personality, and they’ve got to have a story that is interesting to the viewer.’

He cites the success of Cole’s docudrama as a perfect example. ‘People gravitated to her just with her music but once [viewers] saw her life and they saw the parallels between her life and [their own] lives, they gravitated to her even more.’

During the first season of Cole’s show, her debut album had gained platinum status, but by the close of season three, Cole was a multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated singer. The series’ numbers have also grown over the course of the seasons, with season three’s first episode being BET’s top original series season premiere telecast, at over 1.94 million viewers.

CMT Canada and Henry Less Productions also took a gamble on a recently signed artist for the documentary series Crystal: Living the Dream. The broadcaster and prodco saw great potential in the story of Crystal Shawanda, an Ojibwa country singer from Ontario’s Wikwemikong reserve who moved to Nashville, toiled around in honkytonks for years and finally got a record deal with RCA.

Shawanda’s show, like Cole’s, follows both the personal and professional side of her life and corresponds to the release of an album. In a seamless blend from documentary show to music video, the Crystal: Living the Dream series ended with the premiere of her debut video. Interestingly, Shawanda, who strived to come across as real as possible in her own show, watches The Way It Is because of how easily she can relate to the R&B diva. ‘I think [when watching it], ‘Maybe there isn’t something wrong with me if she’s having these problems in her personal life,’ and I relate to that. It’s comforting,’ she says.

The kind of exposure that these shows produce should reasonably translate to more sales. ‘Reality shows are kind of a new 21st century way to market,’ says Hill. However, promotion and marketing can’t be the only goal of the music-based reality show. Hannah Worrell, head of sales at London-based Target Entertainment Group, is keenly aware of the relationship between music and reality programming thanks to distributing Popstars, the forerunner to American Idol and X-Factor, and its first look distrib deal with US music TV network Fuse. Worrell knows that viewers can sniff out an infomercial for an album a mile away. ‘They can’t just be marketing tools as fans will turn off very quickly,’ she says.

Sissy Federer-Less, EP of Crystal, concedes that the doc series did serve as a marketing tool, or at least that was how Shawanda’s promoters and managers saw it. ‘It was definitely seen as a way to break her into the Canadian market,’ she says. However, Henry Less Productions saw the series as giving Shawanda three hours of prime time television in Canada.

As for the singer herself, she had personal reasons for taking the reality plunge. ‘I felt like it was a way to get some closure with my family, friends and community members, [since] there’s this huge part of me that misses where I’m from,’ she says.

Whereas Cole and Shawanda were not widely known at the beginning of their non-fiction shows, an upcoming entrant to A&E’s reality arsenal, MC Hammer, achieved huge fame in the late 1980s to mid-’90s for ‘U Can’t Touch This’ and to a lesser extent, his fashion sense (we all remember the ‘Hammer pants’). While the rapper has already appeared on two VH1 reality shows, A&E’s director of non-fiction and alternative programming, Stephen Harris, felt it was time to bring Hammer’s personality back to TV. Hammertime, currently in production for the network, will show the rapper as a ‘family man.’

‘There’s something undeniably likeable and authentic about the Hammers. They’re a real family that we think audiences will identify with,’ says Robert Sharenow, SVP of non-fiction and alternative programming for A&E and executive producer on the project.

Hammer himself tells realscreen via email, somewhat enigmatically, that he’s not using Hammertime to mount a comeback. ‘Entering and leaving is subjective,’ he says. ‘That’s a separate strategy altogether.’ But Sharenow says Hammer’s music and dancing ‘will definitely be part of the show. It’s one of the elements that really sets this show apart… Hammer has so many different ventures going on, from his Internet company to his performing career. This will definitely help highlight his many interests.’

For his part, Hammer’s own reasons for allowing a camera crew into his life sound similar to Shawanda’s, as he cites ‘family and positivity.’ And he takes care to note that the show isn’t about following him around 24/7, being sure to drop A&E’s tagline into his reasoning. ‘That’s old reality TV,’ he says. ‘This is 2009. Real-life TV.’

While it remains to be seen what Hammer’s definition of reality TV in 2009 looks like and what Hammertime‘s effect will be on Hammer’s career, it cannot be denied that an artist’s profile is raised in a reality show. Federer-Less says there is no question that Shawanda made more of an impact in her home market of Canada after the show aired.

BET’s Hill also remarks that Cole’s show had a great effect on her career. The making of her last album, A Different Me, was documented on the last season of The Way It Is and went on to sell over 300,000 copies in its first week.

‘Approximately a million people were watching every week; [those are] return viewers invested in her life,’ says Hill. ‘With the right personality, with people who connect, it can only help their careers.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.