Why Bret Michaels & Other Music Stars Turn to Reality TV for Fame, Fortune
Bret Michaels, veteran of six-count 'em, six-reality shows, has two bits of advice for artists looking to break into the genre:
"Never wear white on TV unless you're at your fighting weight," he says. "And never drink too much in Cabo if you're going to be on TV."
A decade after Fox debuted "American Idol" and eight years after MTV's "The Osbournes" showed the world that, yes, even the dogs of rock icons pee on carpets, this fall's music reality programming slate offers the most robust selection yet-from home improvement to first-person show and tell-proving that there's no shortage of artists willing to grace the small screen in new, potentially humiliating ways.
"It's become the shortcut to fame," Sharon Osbourne says. "There's no more struggling and banging on people's doors and begging to be heard and taking your demo around pleading for an appointment with an A&R guy. Those days are gone. It's the world now of TV and the Internet."
Artists with shows premiering this fall include a hodgepodge of format veterans: On Oct. 18, Michaels will be launching his seventh reality show, this time alongside his family in "Bret Michaels: Life As I Know It," on VH1. On Style on Sept. 5, "Mel B: It's a Scary World" debuts, following up the former Spice Girl's "Dancing With the Stars" appearance. Another veteran of the genre returning to the fold is Vanilla Ice, whose "The Vanilla Ice Project," debuts on the DIY Network Oct. 14. The show documents Vanilla Ice masterminding a home renovation based on his self-taught home improvement experience.
"A big concern for us as a network that prides itself on offering people expert advice was that he really know his stuff," DIY Network VP of programming Andy Singer says. "And he really does-in the opening scene he's driving through Palm Beach looking at people's landscapes . . . and he's quoting the Latin names of trees and bushes."
Other fall season debuts seek to bring those on the fringes of music success into the mainstream. VH1 will launch "La La & Carmelo" about the courtship of MTV VJ La La Vazquez and Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, while Oxygen looks at the assistants of Def Jam founder Russell Simmons on "Running Russell Simmons" on Nov. 2. BET will launch "Being Terry Kennedy" Oct. 12, with pro skateboarder "TK" Kennedy, who's also a member of rap group Fly Society. "Skateboarding is a situation where you got to love pain," Kennedy says. "Music, for me, is a way to release pain."
But it's not all flash and quick edits: On Sept. 7, IFC launches "360 Sessions," where David Gray, La Roux, Stereophonics and Snoop Dogg will be profiled in their own words and perform on the half-hour show. "To be given an opportunity to tell your story in the way you want to tell it is rare in television these days," IFC senior VP of original programming Debbie DeMontreux says. "It's organic and intimate access."
These new shows join the legion of artists across genres, ages, genders and career stages who have participated in reality TV: from witty piano-banger Ben Folds as a judge on NBC's short-lived a cappella show "The Sing Off" to Fantasia Barrino, discovered on "American Idol," returning to VH1 on Sept. 19-a month after a suicide attempt-with the second season of "Fantasia for Real," to the roll call of fame-seekers both young and not-so-much: Jessica Simpson, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Nick Cannon, J.C. Chasez, Nicole Scherzinger, Aubrey O'Day, Dee Snider, Monica, Chilli, Gene Simmons, Brandy, Brooke Hogan, Nick Lachey, Trey Songz and Keyshia Cole, to name just some.
"It's now part of the marketing plan," says Stephen Hill, executive VP of entertainment and music programming at BET, which airs shows starring Songz, Cole and Monica. "Twenty years ago, it was videos that were rotating up to a hundred times a day."
Since music videos have been largely exiled to the Internet, music reality TV programming provides a viable outlet for promotion-especially now that the stigma surrounding the shows has faded. In an era when indie darling Arcade Fire doesn't view teaming with American Express as a one-way ticket to cool jail, following in the footsteps of "Joe Millionaire" is just one more way to help replace missing CD revenue.
Choreographer Laurie Ann Gibson, veteran of "Making the Band" and "Starmaker," is teaming with Ryan Seacrest Productions on a show about artist development. "Access is what it's all about for these artists," she says. "You can say you want real music back again, but it's a different time, kids. You've got to be 360 as soon as you hit, and TV shows have given you that platform."
And for those who still deride the genre as an outlet for has-beens, wannabes and never-weres making a last gasp bid for the big time, know this: A look at the deals involved reveal that appearing on a music reality show is quite lucrative, and it often leads to fame in unanticipated ways.
FOR LOVE AND MONEY
There are three broad categories for musicians to participate on reality TV shows: as a host, as a judge or as a star.
From there, the contracts get complicated. Payouts depend on where the TV show airs-networks, with their bigger audiences, provide a larger base for advertisers and can shell out more money for talent than cable outlets. The stature of the musician also comes into play.
"With reality TV, it's incredibly important to attach a celebrity, but it doesn't have to be A-list-it can be B- or C-list," says Glenn Litwak, an entertainment attorney with Litwak & Havkin in Los Angeles who has negotiated deals for the shows "Real World," "Real World/Road Rules Challenge," "Dancelife" and "Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll." "You just need some kind of name and some kind of interesting personality. Very often, it's not A-list celebrities because the budgets wouldn't be able to afford those kinds of people."
On the lowest end of the pay scale would be an unknown participant on a dating reality show on an obscure cable channel, Litwak says. In that scenario, the person could expect to earn about $1,000 an episode. The outlier of the other side of the spectrum is "American Idol," where Litwak says that the judges-whoever they may eventually be-can earn seven figures per season.
That leaves a lot of territory in the middle for artists and their representatives to wheel and deal, Litwak says. "For hosting, a midsize recording artist could get $25,000-$35,000 an episode," he says. "But if that person is the creator/executive producer, they're going to get fees each episode that could be in the range of $15,000-$20,000, and that could have escalations for subsequent seasons of the show." Litwak defines a midsize artist as someone like Maxwell or Ginuwine -- neither of whom he represents -- "someone who is known, but is not huge; is famous, has made a lot of money, but not Lady Gaga or Madonna."
The results for midsize artists is striking. "Without a doubt, you massively broaden your audience," Michaels says. "I've gone from two generations of Poison fans to having four generations of fans."
If, like Michaels, the artist becomes a one-person reality franchise, his or her pay will increase substantially. The per-episode pay increases are about 5% for each subsequent season, Litwak says, and there's an additional bonus if the show is spun off. The best deal for the talent to get, he says, is to be credited as an executive producer for the life of the series and any spinoffs that may be generated. This gives the artist both a short and long-term payday.
There are variations, of course. The network may opt to attach the talent as executive producer for one season only, but offer to pay the artist as a "consultant" for the second season if the network wants to make a personnel change after the first cycle of episodes. (Being a consultant in this manner, Litwak drolly notes, "may not involve any actual services.")
There's a downside to being an executive producer, however: It kind of sucks. "It's a big job that I don't really like that much," says Sharon Osbourne, who executive-produced "Osbournes Reloaded" last year. "You've got big responsibilities to the network, you've got big responsibilities to the other people who are in the show."
Sonja Norwood, the mother and manager of Brandy and Ray J, was an executive producer of VH1's "For the Love of Ray J" and "Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business" and deals with everything from routine paperwork to clearances. "It's making sure all of the details are covered: discussing the storylines, discussing what is going to happen during the day," she says.
For those onscreen, the network will ask for an exclusivity provision -- if the talent is hosting a dance show, for instance, the artist will be prohibited from hosting the same on any other network. Other promotional appearances -- like doing the late-night or early-morning chat show circuit -- are allowed.
At all times, the broadcaster retains the right to pull the plug on the show, Litwak says. "You pitch a show, and then the network or cable outlet shoots some test footage, and then maybe they'll shoot a pilot, and then maybe they'll shoot a certain number of episodes, but they have the right at any time to stop," he says.
And if negotiations reach a stumbling point, an artist's team can pull out this fact: According to the Hollywood Reporter, "Jersey Shore" star Mike "the Situation" Sorrentino is pulling in $60,000 per episode for the upcoming third season of the series.
STARS, THEY'RE JUST LIKE US
Those who have been through the reality TV machine agree that the fame it creates is instantaneous and huge. "TV is the biggest medium there is," Osbourne says. "["The Osbournes"] aired on a Tuesday, and that Sunday I'd taken the kids to Venice Beach and we couldn't walk because people kept on coming up to us. It was unbelievable."
The exposure these music reality TV shows bring varies by what network or cable outlet they air on and what audience they target.
"American Idol," of course, is the granddaddy of them all. Pitched for the widest possible audience, it remains the most-watched show on TV and delivers in excess of 20 million viewers twice per week, according to Nielsen.
By comparison, a show like "What Chilli Wants," starring former TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, is directed at VH1's core 25- to 35-year-old demographic and gains extra exposure with this audience from reruns and online content. "I thought that it would be great for women to see that it's OK to be by yourself until you find the perfect person for you," Chilli says. "I did it for me and all the women in America."
For the first season of "Chilli," ratings averaged 1.3 million total viewers per episode, according to Nielsen, and the second season starts filming Sept. 13. That's on par with most other slice-of-life music reality shows that air on cable: "Gene Simmons Family Jewels" on A&E averaged 1.4 million viewers in its most recent season that ended Aug. 24. (Competition shows do a bit better, according to Nielsen: VH1's "Rock of Love Bus" with Michaels averaged 2 million viewers and MTV's "Making the Band 4 Season 3" averaged 1.5 million.)
"We've come to realize it's hard to make shows about the process of making music, but we know our viewers are voracious consumers and they love music," says Jeff Olde, VH1 executive VP of original programming and production.
In terms of album and single sales, the successes are legendary: Multiplatinum sellers Susan Boyle, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson all got their start on reality TV. Others have seen more modest-but still notable-sales success: Most recently, Fantasia's "Back to Me" sold 117,000 first-week copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (The reality TV halo even extends to music projects that may have been generated as a result of a pact with the devil. In January, Heidi Montag's debut album, "Superficial," reached No. 41 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart.)
One element remains consistent, however. Make a mark on one reality show, and it almost guarantees the chance at another season or spinoff. "If we're doing a series, the goal for us isn't just to have one season," Olde says. "The goal is to have multiple seasons."
For example, VH1 dating show "For the Love of Ray J" spun off with "Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business," which features the siblings and their parents-a expansion of the franchise that took the Norwood clan some time to decide to do. "Brandy and Ray J, they're used to the cameras," Sonja Norwood says. "But my husband and I, we were like, 'Oh, my God.' When we were shooting the commercial [for "Family Business"], they had to come and coach us on four lines. They would stop the production and say, 'Mom? Dad? You guys got to do it this way.' "
After dozens of music reality TV shows have debuted, the challenge becomes changing up the format enough to keep viewers interested. "It's kind of like saying, 'When are people going to get sick of books?' " Olde says. "If you tell them a good story and give them a good character that they care about, I don't think there's an end for it."
Part of this comes from casting outré performers to draw in the audience-Oxygen recently announced a reality show in development with former "Making the Band" star/Danity Kane member Aubrey O'Day-but new format tweaks to the genre are also in the works.
Evan Bogart, who's part of the songwriting collective the Writing Camp, with credits on Beyoncé's "Halo" and Rihanna's "SOS," is working with True Entertainment and Bravo on "Hitmakers." The show is in the final stages of casting, he says.
"A couple of years ago I said, 'I wish there was a show for songwriters, like 'Songwriter Idol,' " Bogart says. "A lot of times, people come up to me and they're like, 'How do you write a song?' I can't tell anybody how to write a song. The only way to tell you is to show you how to write a song."
Looming over all of these shows is the fall 2011 debut of "The X Factor" on Fox, ex-"American Idol" judge Simon Cowell's U.K. import. "X Factor" is a talent competition like "Idol" but features much more intensive mentorship of the contestants by the judges. In England, "X Factor" netted more than 11 million viewers-an astonishing 47.8% share of the total TV audience in its time frame-for its season premiere on Aug. 21, according to the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board.
Despite making a reported $50 million per year toward the end of his tenure as a host on "Idol," Cowell stands to have a much bigger payoff on "X Factor," since he serves as judge and executive producer with his production company, Syco Television. Besides doubtlessly earning a big payday for licensing the format from the United Kingdom to American TV, it also means that he stands to gain a share of whatever music sales are generated from the talent on the show.
Sharon Osbourne was a judge on "X Factor" in the United Kingdom for four years and is now in her fourth year as a judge on "America's Got Talent"-another British format import. Amid her many experiences with the medium-she also was a contestant on "Celebrity Apprentice" earlier this year-she says artists looking to break into reality TV should know that one fact holds constant.
"You cannot bullshit the public," she says. "Yes, people will vote for you because they like you or because they feel sorry for you-but if you put out a record and it sucks, it ain't going to sell. It's over."
To learn more about building an artist's brand, attend the Billboard/Adweek Music & Advertising Conference Sept. 15-16 in Chicago. To register, go to billboardevents.com.