Reality Helps: TV Turns To Life-Changing Shows
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/5/2005 8:00:00 PM
Some of A&E's biggest stars next season will likely be alcoholics, junkies and other addicts.
The network will run a second season of reality show Intervention, thanks to the notable success of its first season, with 13 episodes slated for fourth quarter. Since its launch in March, the heart-wrenching series has averaged 1.3 million total viewers—making it A&E's second-highest-rated program, behind Dog the Bounty Hunter.
Intervention presents straightforward portraits of addicts of various substances and practices who have agreed to film a documentary about addiction, then surprises them with an intervention attended by family members and friends.
The show and a bevy of new ones like it demonstrate that audiences crave programs that document the vulnerable moments of a person's life, then purport to heal the subjects they profile. Possibly a reaction to mean-spirited, elimination-based competitions, the life-changing series have earned ratings and accolades for the networks. HBO is still airing 85-minute documentary Rehab, and ABC (The Miracle Workers) and NBC (Three Wishes) are looking to pull in viewers with upcoming life-changing reality series.
But the emerging genre raises questions of how responsible the networks are to the people they profile. Critics ask how ethical it is to be playing out someone's personal struggles on TV. “Shows like Intervention trivialize the disease and how serious it is,” says John Schwarzlose, president/CEO of the Betty Ford Center. “Why does this need to be on TV? This is a private thing. I don't see what good it does, I just don't. Have a documentary and show the value of interventions, but don't go into the middle of families.”
Intervention-themed shows made the rounds for years, with skittish executives at other networks passing on its controversial subject matter. “The real question was, were we going to be able to do this?” says Nancy Dubuc, A&E senior VP, non-fiction and alternative programming. “You're essentially helping get people to rehab if they so choose.” A&E executives eventually gave the show the nod to go to series after an emotional pilot impressed them.
Intervention presents its subjects' entire progression into the grips of dependence. Episodes begin with family members, and often the addicts themselves, wistfully describing the subjects' pre-addiction lives. Jeff VanVonderen, the show's Dr. Phil-like star, says that interventions are a shock to the recipient. “You can't send somebody a Hallmark card and say, we're inviting you to your intervention next Saturday.”
The show follows its subjects right up to rehab and usually provides a brief update on how they are doing later. To Dubuc, this sets Intervention apart from other addiction reality shows. “We're not there to exploit people and show them at rock bottom and walk away,” she says. “That's going too far.”
Furthermore, A&E says, it has teamed with Partnership for a Drug-Free America to co-produce town-hall meetings with Time Warner affiliates in Houston and Cincinnati later this month as part of a public-outreach campaign. Producers will film government officials and community members affected by addictions for a classroom special.
Programming execs have long seen story-telling value in the life-change theme. MTV's Made, a “lifestyle-makeover series” that coaches young people in pursuit of a transformation, starts its sixth season June 15.
This summer, ABC will bring back Brat Camp, in which six families send their wayward teens to behavior camp. Come midseason, it will follow up with The Miracle Workers, which features a dream team of doctors who grant patients life-changing treatment they otherwise couldn't access or afford.
NBC this fall will debut Three Wishes, an hour-long reality show in which born-again country singer Amy Grant leads a team to small towns across America to “transform hopes into a life-changing reality,” says the network. NBC started pursuing life-change reality shows a year ago when it greenlighted the pilot for this season's weight-loss challenge, The Biggest Loser. After the show improved ratings in its time period by 116%, NBC shot several life-changing reality pilots this year and put Three Wishes to series.
“It was as much to be different as to be positive,” says NBC Executive VP Jeff Gaspin, who gave Three Wishes its go-ahead. “How many more 16-contestant, two-team vote-off shows can you have?”
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