RSW ’14: Cautionary tales from the celebreality world

The Voice coach CeeLo Green (pictured) joined a panel of reality TV producers for an appropriately gossipy session about the ins and outs of producing shows starring celebs at this year's Realscreen West.
June 5, 2014

Some have the Bible. Others have celebreality shows.

“They’re the sacred texts of our time,” World of Wonder co-founder and CEO Randy Barbato told an audience at the Realscreen West conference on Wednesday (June 4). “I’m kind of joking and I’m kind of not.”

Barbato, whose has produced series starring celebs such as Tori Spelling, RuPaul and LaToya Jackson, was speaking as the moderator of “Multiple Realities: Producing Celebreality,” an appropriately gossipy discussion about the ins and outs of producing reality shows starring celebs.

From classics such as The Osbournes starring rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his family and Being Bobby Brown, an infamously unfiltered peek into the lives of the troubled R&B singer and his late ex-wife Whitney Houston, to recent titles starring actress Tori Spelling and country singer LeeAnn Rimes, Barbato posited that celebrity series say a lot about cultural mores.

“It’s the most exciting genre on television right now,” he said.

The panel featured CeeLo Green (pictured above), the star and executive producer of the TBS series CeeLo Green’s The Good Life; his co-executive producer Andrew Jameson of Primary Wave TV; Gurney Productions co-founder Deirdre Gurney; and Lifetime’s senior VP of non-fiction programming Eli Lehrer. Topics discussed ranged from how to approach celebrity talent, sneaky managers and agents and dramatic versus feel-good celebreality.

The first part of the session revolved around quick-turnaround of Lifetime’s True Tori, a series about the disintegration of 90210 star Tori Spelling and husband Dean McDermott’s marriage.

The couple previously starred in the World of Wonder-produced series Tori and Dean, which aired for six seasons on U.S. cable network Oxygen. While that program was a light-hearted romantic comedy, True Tori is much darker in tone as it follows the couple as they attempt to move on from Dean’s stint in rehab following his affair with another woman late last year.

Spelling pitched the show to Lifetime in mid-March and inked a deal with the cable net a week later. Pre-production lasted 10 days, production began in April and the first episode aired six weeks later on March 22. It wraps up later this month.

“It’s the most unusual experience I’ve had in TV,” Lehrer explained, describing the production process as “terrifying.” “It felt like a big risk but we had a hole in our schedule and it felt worthy.”

The couple’s turbulent marriage is a tabloid fixture and the episodes are shot, edited and aired within a week in order to create a feedback loop with the steady stream of gossip headlines and paparazzi pics the pair generates.

Editing on a typical docuseries usually takes between six-to-10 weeks, whereas Lehrer was viewing the first cut of the first episode of True Tori after two days. The fast-turnaround is essential to the show’s appeal and means that a drama could play out on the air a week after paparazzi shots suggesting marital strife surface in People or Us Weekly.

“You feel like you’re getting a truly intimate look behind the façade,” Lehrer added. “That’s why Being Bobby Brown is still being talked about 10 years later – it felt like that was them.”

While Spelling walked into Lifetime’s office, not every production company has celebrities knocking on their doors.

After A&E’s Duck Dynasty turned the Roberston family into national celebrities in their own right, agents and managers started calling the show’s producer, Gurney Productions, in hopes of securing a similarly feel-good reality vehicle for their celebrity clients. The company now has six reality series starring celebrities in various stages of production.

Co-founder Deirdre Gurney shared a story from early in her career to illustrate a point that producers with no reputation can secure star power if they are savvy enough.  However, the anecdote quickly turned into a cautionary tale.

“When you’re starting out you think you won’t have access to celebrities but you do,” she explained. “We had Taylor Swift signed [to a reality deal] right before she blew up.

“Access is hard with celebrities,” she added. “I had made one ‘Shark Week’ show and we got Taylor Swift signed. We hustled and we found a way to get to her.”

At the time, the country-pop superstar was a rising talent being managed by her father. Excited by the get, Gurney rang up her agency at the time to share the news. At 3 p.m. that same day, an agent called back to inform her the agency had signed Swift as a client and she was no longer interested in a reality deal.

“Don’t tell your agent that you have up-and-coming talent,” she cautioned, adding that the incident is still painful to recall in light of Swift’s later ascendance to pop royalty.

Gurney added she typically approaches managers because agents might try to package a talent with a producer client to get a bigger fee. “I’m afraid the agency will go, ‘Oh I didn’t think of a reality show and set [the star] up with one of their other clients,” she said.

Lehrer added that managers can also be essential to access a star during production and used former American Idol judge Paul Abdul’s short-lived 2007 series Hey Paula, which he worked on while a development exec at Bravo, to illustrate his point.

The singer had no representation at the time, Lehrer explained, and when it came time to shoot “she locked production out for large chunks of her life.” He said the show is an example of how a project can fail if a star wants to present an image that is at cross-purposes with who they are.

“We said forget it. We’re going nowhere and the show died,” said Lehrer.

Gossip rags also figure into Gurney Productions’ upcoming semi-scripted reality series LeeAnn & Eddie, which premieres on VH1 on July 17. The show follows singer LeeAnn Rimes and actor Eddie Cibrian, another couple familiar to tabloid readers.

Gurney described it as a lighthearted series in which the pair will address various news stories about their relationship in funny and occasionally emotional ways.

She recounted a recent incident in which producers were drawn into a minor tabloid drama with Cibrian’s ex-wife Brandi Glanville, who appeared on season two of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Gurney said Glanville’s manager called the production company and asked if they wanted his client to appear on the show. Gurney’s husband and partner, Scott Gurney, took the call and gave a standard reply: what did she want to do on the show?

“The next day she [announced] that we wanted her to be on the show,” Gurney said. “They set us up for a little spin. The truth is Brandi called us.”

A feel-good series is what singer, rapper and The Voice coach Green was interested in, but such programs can be hard to pitch, according to Jameson, who executive produces CeeLo Green’s The Good Life, which premieres on TBS on June 23.

Producers will lock in a charismatic star and assemble a cast of interesting characters – in this case, Green and his Atlanta-based rap group Goodie Mob – but the network will often demand story details that producers cannot provide until after production begins.

“Networks want to know what it is,” he said. “‘Yeah, but what’s the show?‘”

Managing expectations can become an issue with cable-bound celebs used to bigger budgets on the terrestrial nets and perks such as trailers, catering and not having to shoot full days. But because Green is also an executive producer, he knows the score. “We had a great budget for what we had but it was not The Voice,” said Jameson.

For his part, Green was apprehensive at first but the ensemble-focus ultimately persuaded him the series was good for his growing brand.

“If I had been the focal point, I wouldn’t have been comfortable,” Green said, explaining that the broader focus on his friends keeps the series at a distance from his personal life. “Honesty is also a brand. I wanted to share a little bit more but I don’t give it all away.”

“I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do,” he continued. “It was very enjoyable for everyone’s first time out.”

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