By Dave Lake
Special to MSN TV
A quick glance at this season's list of "Dancing With the Stars" contestants reveals a more head-scratching list than the usual mix of B- and C-list talent. Every season of the show has had its share of stars that made you say, "Who?" But when the number of little-knowns is greater than the number of well-knowns for a particular season, it begs the question of whether reality TV producers have simply run out of viable contestants for their shows.
The ABC dancing competition, which still generates big ratings and which pays participants somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000-$350,000 depending on how long they last, should have the easiest time casting, since it's the highest-profile and highest-paying celebrity reality series. Appearances on the show have boosted the careers of several of its previous contestants, including Mario Lopez, Brooke Burke and Mel B, who will be seen this summer as a judge on another reality series, NBC's "America's Got Talent." But with 16 seasons under its belt and with a deep lineup of cable channels looking to fill their airtime with the lives of celebs, ABC seems to have had a hard time finding a compelling list of stars for its signature celebrity reality show. Most seasons of the series boast a few celebs who were once pretty happening: Florence Henderson, Jennifer Grey, Pamela Anderson, Marie Osmond. This year's best-known dancers include Wynonna Judd, Dorothy Hamill, D.L. Hughley and Andy Dick -- probably not exactly the kind of dream lineup the network hoped for.
American TV viewers have been interested in seeing celebrities on TV for just about as long as there's been TV. Early game shows like "What My Line?" featured a panel of celebrities who tried to guess the occupation of the contestant -- or in some cases, the identity of the famous mystery guest. Growing up in the '70s, one of my favorite programs was "Battle of the Network Stars," in which the stars of the three major networks of the time -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- faced off in a series of sporting events. Part of the appeal was seeing famous faces from different networks and different genres interacting and competing against each other. It was quite a thrill to see sitcom star Gabe Kaplan of "Welcome Back, Kotter" facing off against Telly Savalas of "Kojak," or a young William Shatner competing against an even younger David Letterman.
With the success of "Survivor" in 2000, reality shows began to reshape prime time and the TV landscape at large. Unscripted shows were substantially cheaper to produce than their scripted brethren, and networks small and large flocked to the genre en masse. In 2002, MTV premiered "The Osbournes," a comedic look at metal madman Ozzy Osbourne and his family. Not only was the show instantly popular with viewers, but it was a critical success as well, turning the Osbournes into overnight megastars and creating the celebrity reality genre in the process.
Since then, producers have mined seemingly every nook and cranny of the celebrity experience and broadcast it the world over. From "Osbournes" rip-offs to dating shows, travel diaries to wedding planning, spouse swapping to ice skating, if you can think of it, it's probably been done on reality TV -- and, very likely, with a celebrity. There was "Armed and Famous" (celebs do law enforcement training), "Celebracadabra" (celebs do card tricks), "Celebrity Circus" (celebs do the trapeze) and "Secret Talents of the Stars" (celebs do ... whatever they want!).
In the beginning of the celebrity reality craze, once-relevant stars were able to stave off obscurity by appearing in a series that had an interesting premise. Shows like "Breaking Bonaduce," starring an angry and on-the-edge-of-divorce Danny Bonaduce, gave a warts-and-all look into the experience of being a faded celeb. Others followed suit: Anna Nicole Smith, Jessica Simpson, and on and on. But it wasn't long before the handful of interesting programs gave way to an onslaught of publicity-driven vanity projects designed to do little more than boost a star's Q Score or sell their next album.
Fast forward a few years and the genre seems to be completely out of gas. Reality TV has churned out very few unique ideas in recent years and producers have looked to celebrities to keep existing shows going, like "The Apprentice," which is currently in its 13th season, and its sixth featuring celebrities. This season, though, rather than casting a group of stars new to the franchise, NBC opted instead for an all-star version, a sign that the show had a tough time finding a compelling group of talent. The strength of "The Celebrity Apprentice" has always been its casting. The job competition format grew tired seasons ago, but the show's mix of dynamic personalities, which proved combustible when forced to compete against one another, was worth tuning in for. At least until now since we've already seen all of this season's stars before.
ABC's upcoming celebrity diving show, "Splash," faces similar issues. Six-time NBA champ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the show's biggest celebrity, but does he have a dynamic enough personality to make the show interesting? The rest of the cast includes Louie Anderson, Keshia Knight Pulliam and a bunch of folks you've probably never heard of, like Rory Bushfield, an extreme skier so famous he doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry.
Another symptom of the dearth of celebs available for reality TV is the fact that producers have begun to farm their own talent rather than seek out people already notable within their respective field. Bravo invented the "Real Housewives" franchise, populated with rich, mostly not-famous women, many of whom have gone on to appear on other shows, both on their network and elsewhere. This season's "Dancing With the Stars" features Lisa Vanderpump from the Beverly Hills version of the show. Why cultivate relationships with existing celebs if you can just grow your own at a much cheaper price tag? At least you'd heard of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian before their reality series hit the air. Not true of Snooki or JWoww.
But the surest sign that casting directors are struggling to find new talent is the sheer number of celebs who appear in show after show after show. People like Janice Dickinson, Stephen Baldwin and Gene Simmons are among the genre's biggest repeat offenders. They have created a cottage industry for themselves as reality stars, but the more they appear, the less interesting they become to audiences. Gary Busey was a revelation in his short-lived 2003 series "I'm With Busey," but in the years since he's appeared on "Celebrity Fit Club 2," "Celebrity Paranormal Project," "Celebrity Rehab" and "Celebrity Apprentice" -- twice. At least David Hasselhoff has the smarts to go overseas to exploit himself, thereby extending his reality TV shelf life, having appeared on "Britain's Got Talent" and "Celebrity Apprentice Australia" in addition to the several shows he's done Stateside.
Ultimately, however, it is TV viewers who are to blame. If there wasn't an audience for it, networks wouldn't be producing these shows. WE TV has built its entire brand on the back of the genre (oh, and insane brides), with a current crop of unscripted shows that feature Joan Rivers, Toni Braxton, Kendra Wilkinson and Cyndi Lauper -- almost all of whom had appeared on a reality show previously.
Network executives should consider enacting some kind of term limit for reality show stars, like we do with our presidents. After appearing on four different shows, a star wouldn't be allowed to appear on another reality show. Thank you for your service; now please go back to being a civilian. It wouldn't have to be a formal arrangement per se, but at least it would force network programmers to work harder at finding shows -- and talent -- with some bite. "Breaking Bad" will still be interesting to audiences in 20 years. The lives of Hulk Hogan and his family, not so much.
Here's an idea: How about a reality show that follows a group of celebs to all the pitch meetings they attend. Cameras would roll while producers explained one vapid reality concept after the other. At the end of each episode, the celebrities would get together in the same room to compare notes and laugh about how embarrassing and banal reality TV had become. Now that's a show I might actually watch.