Social studies

Whether it's high-flying CEOs, members of royal families from exotic locales or politicians, there's an abundance of high-profile players entering the factual entertainment field in 2010. What makes them want to be part of the action, and why are producers flocking to the upper-crust for casting?
May 1, 2010

Reality TV as we know it today has built its dynasty by the casting of unknowns who can balance a hunger for fame with on-screen magnetism, tracing back to the debut of Bunim/Murray’s The Real World on MTV in 1992. Then, celebreality made its mark, with several VH1 series fanning the flames. In 2010, it seems that reality and factual entertainment programming has undergone a subject shift once more, with more producers showcasing high-profile players in fish out of water programming.

Of course, when Donald Trump first uttered the words ‘You’re fired!’ in The Apprentice‘s debut season, he (and producer Mark Burnett) helped make the world of reality television attractive to high-falutin’ multi-millionaires in search of a media profile boost. But with the debut of RDF Media’s Secret Millionaire on Channel 4 in 2006, the rich folk went ‘undercover,’ assuming secret identities to bestow monies to those less fortunate. It’s a premise that’s worked well for executive producer Stephen Lambert, the brain behind Secret Millionaire and subsequently, one of the biggest breakout unscripted hits of the past few years, Undercover Boss. With Boss (which aired on Channel 4 in 2009 and then made its way across the ocean to CBS via Lambert’s new prodco Studio Lambert), the template puts a company CEO in undercover mode, finding out about the inner workings of his or her company, warts and all, by being part of the team as opposed to being above it.

‘We hoped that it would touch a nerve and it seems to have done so,’ said Lambert in an interview with, a matter of weeks after the U.S. version’s debut episode premiered after the Super Bowl and drew 38.6 million viewers. The series has, unsurprisingly, been picked up for a second season and continued to bring in strong numbers, with CEOs from 7-Eleven, White Castle and Hooters among those featured.

While watching CEOs leave their lofty perches to get their hands dirty alongside the average Joe and Joanne makes for good television, for a big chunk of the planet, there’s no higher position than that of royalty. Thus, Objective Productions and Kalel Productions aimed for the bleachers when they teamed up for BBC Three’s Undercover Princes and its ‘sequel’ Undercover Princesses. Kalel’s Nick Parnes, who created the show and was EP on both series, imagined the series as a combination of a princess fairytale and the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. The first series, which ran in early 2009, saw princes from India, South Africa and Sri Lanka coming to the UK to live as commoners and find a mate, while series two, which launched this March, had princesses from India, Uganda and Germany doing the same.

The casting process for both series began with an online search for royal families from around the world and then contacting potential candidates. According to Parnes, that process wasn’t as tough as finding royalty who were single and who had an affinity for England. Some royals declined because they didn’t want to appear on TV, while those that did sign on took the risk of leaping into the unknown. ‘They thought they were taking part in a Big Brother-type of show at one point, and when they did [the show], they realized they weren’t. It was an exciting venture for them,’ he says.

The prodcos also encountered their own leap into the unknown, in dealing with royal protocol. Beyond securing permission for princes and princesses to be on the show, there were also special considerations that needed to be tended to on occasion, such as one princess that had to be standing on a royal rug when she was wearing her royal attire. The ‘agent’ for Princess Sheillah Nvannungi, the Ugandan princess, was the vice chancellor of Uganda, Parnes says. ‘Normally you wouldn’t expect the agent to be quite as lofty,’ he remarks. ‘He wanted to be referred to as ‘Your Excellency.’ Normally when you’re arranging a deal with the agent, you’re not referring to him as ‘Your Excellency.’ Certainly not to his face, anyway.’

The series placed all three in a house where the royals had to do everyday tasks they weren’t used to doing themselves, such as cooking and cleaning up. The dating element of the show also introduced the princes and princesses to the Western styles of courtship, which was a ‘real baptism of fire,’ says Parnes. ‘The most important thing about the show [is] it shows the Western audience just how bizarre and sometimes absurd our own customs actually are.’

While Parnes and crew aimed to show a cultural exchange via a Coming to America premise, Love Productions wanted to bring to light societal issues by way of high-profile cast members. Tower Block of Commons, which aired on Channel 4, took four Members of British Parliament and placed them with families in social housing. Love Productions’ creative director Richard McKerrow states that the show was a balancing act of entertainment and social purpose, which had its difficulties.

‘When you’re trying to combine high profile people in a factual entertainment show but there’s a serious social purpose, it’s always really tough,’ he says. ‘A lot of people are suspicious that you’re doing it for pure entertainment, and in fact, yes, you are trying to make an engaging format because you want to bring in viewers that perhaps normally wouldn’t come to that subject.’

According to McKerrow, some MPs were interested in coming on board but couldn’t commit to the eight days of shooting, while some were reluctant for other reasons. In the end, two Tories, one Liberal Democrat and one Labour member signed on.

‘We were really interested in making a series that takes two worlds and crashes them together,’ he says, adding that such juxtapositions must be done for a good reason. ‘For Tower Block of Commons you have politicians who claim to be representing the whole of the United Kingdom… and then you’ve got people who are poor and living on estates who are meant to be represented by these people. Do [the MPs] really understand those lives?’

Love Productions is setting out to continue that method of meshing the jet-set world with the less-privileged, in an upcoming series for BBC, WAGs, Kids and World Cup Dreams (w/t). In the series, five WAGs (a term used by some elements of the British press to describe wives and girlfriends of English soccer players) head off to work at an orphanage, with street children and with a community devastated by HIV in various parts of South Africa. The prodco will also be shooting more of the related series, Famous, Rich and Homeless, with new episodes heading to the slums of Kenya for BBC 1.

McKerrow says that bringing assorted bigwigs on board ‘is a really valuable way of bringing attention to serious subjects and bringing [in] an audience that normally wouldn’t engage with subjects like homelessness and poverty.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.