Andy Cohen does a deep dive into reality TV in ‘For Real: The Story of Reality TV’
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While reality TV has embedded itself into the lives of viewers around the world - growing more popular in the last decade - three decades back, the genre was met with much reservation.
The concept of blurring the lines between celebrities and real life was a novel one, certainly in an era where scripted content was the holy grail.
Interestingly, MTV were among the few networks making inroads in the genre with offerings like “The Real World” (1992), “Road Rules” (1995) and “The Challenge” (1998).
Eventually, time, married with out-of-the-box thinking, shifted mindsets.
Now Andy Cohen is doing a deep dive into where and how it all began in “For Real: The Story of Reality TV” on E!
As the executive producer of “Top Chef” and the “Real Housewives” franchise, Cohen is the perfect fit host for such a show. He has an innate understanding of the subject matter.
I was fortunate enough to bag a telephonic chat with Cohen. And he provided some interesting insights into this pop culture genre.
He shared: “You know the production company were thinking about the idea, and thinking about good partners, and they came to me and we just thought that this feels perfect.
“I’ve been a fan of reality TV since its inception and I’ve been producing it for 20 years or so. So it was a perfect marriage.
“I think it's really interesting. It is important to figure out how it all began. Our starting point is the real world.
“That seems like the place where it began in America, at least, in a big big way, and where everything changed. For me, it was when I started watching ‘The Real World’.”
In the intro of the show, Cohen contextualised the subject matter.
He said: “Over the past three decades reality TV has served up everything from the outrageous to the dramatic to the lovey-dovey to the truly inspirational. But there is so much of the story that is untold.”
He has candid sit downs with reality legends, those behind the shows as well as those who were cast in them. Viewers get a front row seat to the ultimate highs and rock bottom lows of reality TV stars.
The show includes surprising and tear jerking reunions to jaw dropping first hand accounts to shocking secrets revealed and a whole lot more.
As Cohen pointed out, ‘You will never look at reality TV the same way before”.
He added: “I think what’s interesting is sometimes you look at people that are on reality TV and you have judgments about them.
“I’m surprised by the people who connect and root for and love the stars of reality TV. There’s an intimacy about them because they are real people.
“And people have quite strong feelings and a connection with them.”
Over the years, the genre has mushroomed into different formats exploring myriad spheres of interest from celebrity-driven content, food shows, travel series, car shows, talent-scouting offerings in music and fashion, and it has homed in on niche as well as quirky subject matters, too.
At the moment, home renovation shows as well as house flipping shows are gaining a lot of traction, including real-estate offerings.
Simply put, there is no ceiling when it comes to concepts.
As for ongoing suspicions around some makers of reality TV taking liberties by “helping” the narrative along, he said: “Those are conversations that we have on the show. We talk to a lot of producers and people who work behind the scenes to find out what is real and what’s not.
“And I think, specifically the episode where we look at ‘The Bachelor’, it is really interesting to see how producers work to impact the results of that show and you are really going to be surprised by what really goes on there.”
What I found most interesting is how “The Osbournes” paved the way for the celebrity-anchored offerings.
In fact, they were approached after appearing on an episode of MTV Cribs, which was MTV’s attempt to offer a more intimate portrayal of icons and bagging “The Prince of Darkness” was a coup.
Kelly Osbourne added: “If it wasn’t for us, there would be no Kardashians or any of the shows we watch now.”
Once “The Osbournes” started getting rave reviews, other celebs jumped on the bandwagon, some with dismal success, though.
Although reality TV birthed overnight stars, not everyone handled the spotlight well.
Cohen explained: “Listen, I think there is no real guidebook. These are just real people who just become immediately famous.
““First of all, their response to fame and popularity and scrutiny in the public eye can be really hard.
“It’s hard to get judged by people all over the place just for something that you did on camera and you didn’t realise how people would react to it.
“I think that’s hard for a lot of people.
“Also, people on reality TV are not meant to be role models per say. I think that the judgments relating to them are really challenging.”
When pushed on whether networks should bear some responsibility, he shared: “It depends on what the show is. I think the responsibility is to create an entertaining television show and you don’t want to promote something that is going to be somehow detrimental to people's lives. I think ultimately, you are trying to create an entertaining tv show.”
Of course, Nicole Anna Smith (The Anna Nicole Show), who passed away from an overdose, as well as Danny Bonaduce (“Breaking Bonaduce”), a child star whose drug addiction spiralled out of control, are examples of how the pressures of reality TV compounds a deeper struggle.
In episode one, Cohen also explores “The Girls Next Door” and how Kendra Wilkinson’s popularity resulted in her bagging her own reality show.
However, she was not immune to the pressures, more so after her then husband Hank Baskett’s indiscretion with a transgender grabbed headlines.
She was unable to conceal her vulnerability and, despite the dark time in her life, viewers rallied around her.
The deep connection viewers have with the stars sometimes help them rise above scandals à la the release of Paris Hilton’s sex tape ahead of the debut of her reality show, “The Simple Life”, with BFF Nicole Richie.
If anything, the makers admitted it drew more eyeballs to the show.
The episode wrapped up with Cohen sitting down with the Kardashians, who have been dubbed the Royal family of reality TV.
They opened up about the journey and admitted to one of the most difficult things they had to deal with on the show was “Caitlin’s transition”.
While the show is ending - after an incredible 20 year run - they were happy with their journey, accomplishments and growth.
Of their legacy, Kim said they were unified about one thing going into it: “Family over everything. We wanted to make sure our heart came through and we didn’t leave every episode with drama.”
Given his exposure to the genre, Cohen added: “I’ve been doing it (reality TV) for so long and there are so many different types of shows.
“And people love the genre. People love the ‘Real Housewives’ and people love watching ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Project Runway’.
“There are a lot of great entertaining shows that I've been a part of that people seem to really love.
“What works in its favour is someone who is willing to enjoy the process and be open on TV.
“What doesn’t work is people who try to control the process and edit themselves on television because ultimately (especially if they have a secret), dishonesty never works.”
Talk about keeping it real!
“For Real: The Story of Reality TV” premieres on E! (DStv channel 124) on Sunday, June 13, at 9pm.