TV Networks Turn To Celebrities To Boost Ratings

Jan 2, 2012
Originally published on January 2, 2012 4:49 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Several reality shows are starting new seasons on network TV, including "American Idol," "The Biggest Loser," and "The Bachelor." ABC is trying to revive one of its faltering hits by making "Wife Swap" into "Celebrity Wife Swap." The makeover caught the attention of TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS: When it came time to reboot "Wife Swap," ABC had one obvious option.

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DEGGANS: Like so many so-called reality TV shows in America, "Wife Swap" is actually an overseas import. We can thank the Brits for the wonderful idea of exchanging mothers from different families for fun and drama.

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DEGGANS: They also pioneered the idea of creating a celebrity version when the concept got a little stale. Here's a sample of that British show with rocker Pete Burns from '80s one hit wonder, Dead or Alive.

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DEGGANS: ABC will try the same setup on its U.S. version. Rocker Dee Snider switches wives with rapper Flavor Flav. Pastor Ted Haggard trades spouses with showbiz calamity Gary Busey. And actress Tracey Gold exchanges households with singer Carnie Wilson. It's train wreck television. With Busey and Flavor Flav on hand, it's a virtual guarantee.

But celebrities are also a prime way to juice an established reality TV premise. Just ask NBC, which saved Donald Trump's "Apprentice" franchise by dumping the unknown business school graduates who once filled the cast. Instead, they created a celebrity edition with the likes of Piers Morgan, Joan Rivers and, of course, Gary Busey.

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DEGGANS: Busey has appeared in at least five other unscripted series, including "Celebrity Rehab," where a doctor suggested a brain injury might cause some of his problems.

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DEGGANS: He got in a motorcycle accident which split his head open. Now, some of the odd behavior which once seemed funny may be cast in a different light.

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DEGGANS: These unscripted shows work best when the celebrities melt down. In moments, they become characters in a bruising soap opera, playing themselves.

It seems our fascination with fame-tinged drama has created a special class of celebrity, one willing to endure all kinds of televised trials to feed our hunger for humiliating big shots. The only question left is whether we lose a little piece of our humanity while watching celebrities forced to expose their own.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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