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How to find the next reality-TV superstar

Except for the tendency to chose their second wives from among their children's peers, there is nothing TV executives have to guard themselves against more carefully than the habit of trying to unravel the great mystery as to what makes one utterly undistinguished person turn out to be a reality-TV superstar while the next candidate winds up a dud.

And yet, that is exactly what a gathering of TV-industry execs rashly attempted to do at an industry confab, the LATV Fest, being held this week in Century City, Calif.

In rough numbers, if you happen to know what the word "excesses" means, those are what the Kate Gosselins, Simon Cowells, Speidis, Snookis, and other reality-TV superstars of this world invariably commit when they catch the slightest whiff of a television camera.

And yet, as every TV executive knows to his everlasting regret, it's not so simple as just sending out a junior casting suit for a little browsing and sluicing through a cattle call, to round up a herd of people who, when confronted by a lens, began to effervesce to an extraordinary extent.

In fact, networks have become so desperate to find the next breakout star, there is actually a willingness these days to go into middle America to cast, revealed Nick Emmerson, president of Shed Media, whose credits include Bravo's "Real Housewives of New York City" and spinoff "Bethenny Getting Married?" as well as ABC's "Supernanny."

That's because, Emmerson explained, "everyone in New York and LA has already been interviewed for a reality show."

Some reality TV stars are not born great - some have greatness thrust upon them, noted panel moderator Bruce David Klein, president of Atlas Media Corp, whose credits include "How Not to Die" and 'Dr. G Medical Examiner."

Klein wishes he had a buck for every time a producer of an ensemble docusoap got the gang together before the start of taping and "read them the riot act, saying 'If you want a hit show, you've got to give me A to Z'! Because the most successful ones do give A to Z."

But, no matter how brilliant a reality-TV producer might be, in order for a star to really give that A to Z performance that makes all the difference, it's critical that he or she have been born without the self-edit gene.

"They have to be completely unguarded - if they're a recessive character, they're never going to make it to season 4 or 5," noted Damla Dogan, vp at E! Entertainment Television.

E!'s reality roster includes not only two lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-trashy shows starring the Kardashian family, but also a series called "Pretty Wild," described by the network as being about three party-girl sisters trying to make their day into the Hollywood social scene. The most interesting of the three is Alexis Neiers, who, when not trying to become a member of the Hollywood social scene, allegedly was moonlighting as a member of The Bling Ring - a group of people who made the acquaintance of Hollywood celebs like Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan, and then broke into and robbed their houses. Which, happily, makes for an even more interesting reality series: in summer of '09, after the pilot was shot, Alexis was arrested. Her trial was part of the show. This past May, she pled no contest to felony burglary and was sentenced to up to six months in the hoosegow. Everybody wins!

Reality-star wannabes must lead "extreme" lives, Dogan said, simply.

To that end, Spike TV is about to air the first ever ensemble scrap-metal show, "Scrappers" in which three Brooklyn scrap metal crews search for, um, scrap metal, in Brooklyn, starting Aug. 3.

"They live the life of mobsters...there's a trainwreck quality - and infotainment qualify as well" to the show, explained Tim Duffy, Spike TV vp original programming.

Reality-TV stars don't actually have to be bona fide experts in their field, Duff said. Rick Harrison, aka the Spotter on History Channel's "Pawn Stars," Duff noted, may not actually know as much as he'd like you to think, about the objects he's taking in, but he acts like he does and "he's really produce-able."

There's the 'Pop' factor," Duffy said, adding "the camera does not lie - they're either good on camera, or they're not."

One notable exception is the reality-TV judge, noted Izzie Pick, senior vp programming at BBC Worldwide Productions, which produces, among other programs, ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

Reality-judges absolutely must be experts in their field if they're going to break out as a star. And, they must be passionate. Casting for reality judges can only be done the "documentary old-school" way - word of mouth and working the phones...we don't tend to use casting directors," Pick said.

Len Goodman, the center of gravity on "Dancing," is a great example of how to cast right, she insisted. "He's extremely passionate...When you find somebody who is passionate, he doesn't care what he says to everyone."

Though no one came right out and said it, the general consensus seemed to be that casting Ellen DeGeneres on "American Idol" was a textbook case on how NOT to do it, and is a particularly bad mistake when a reality show has a season in which the competitors are a washout - you know, like this past season on "Idol."

"You can stunt cast a [David] Hasselhoff but...if the contestants haven't particularly worked, you need to rely on the judges - the judges are very important," said Emmerson, but we all knew what he was really talking about.

"If they're going to impact the narrative, [judges] need to be seen as experts beyond a shadow of a doubt - they're the glue that hold the show together, along with the host," added Pick.

Docusoap stars may be the most difficult to cast, based on the TV executives' observations.

First, you have to find your tentpole person, then you have to surround them with a great group of "friends." That's because "there are at last 12 scenes in every episode and one person cannot carry 12 scenes," noted Dogan.

It's always best to cast archetypes - characters who are very distinguishable. "You have to be able to boil them down to stereotypes. Viewers need to walk away from the show saying 'I liked that girl - the party girl-turned-good'," Dogan explained.

It's always best if the "friends" in a docusoap are actually people who know each other well because, while producers are very clever about creating storylines, "it's nowhere as good as real storylines," said Emmerson.

"There's no better feeling in the world" than when you find an "ensemble cast and just add water," added moderator Klein.

Spike TV's Duffy acknowledged he is a huge fan of Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchises and marveled at how they were each "so distinctive, and so clear and you understand each one of these characters so well."

"I know none of that is real - these people do not exist in nature in that form.... How did you figure out who was who, and how to spread them out?" he asked.

"It was just add vodka, in many ways," Emmerson said, presumably of the New York City edition, with which he is involved.

Much discussion ensued but, in the end, the panel decided that the X factor is -- the press and its wonderful eagerness to pander to the tastes of a sensation-avid public with an endless stream of stories on whatever reality-TV participant had caught its eye.

That's what makes a reality-TV participant into a reality-TV superstar.

"Their own press becomes part of the story," Oxygen Media senior vp Cori Abraham marveled.

By Lisa de Moraes  |  July 14, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  TV News  
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