Is Jack Osbourne a victim of fleeting fame?

May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

We were saddened to hear last week that 17-year-old Jack Osbourne checked himself into Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., for rehab from drugs and alcohol.
It certainly wasn’t the most surprising news. Viewers of the MTV reality show The Osbournes have seen Jack’s hard partying ways, as well as his hapless parents’ meaningless efforts to get him to reform.
It made me wonder whether he was a victim of television or his eccentric parents’ celebrity seeking. It was hard not to associate the relentless exposure since the TV show premiered with the pathetic sight of this lost boy, who long ago quit school to be a record company scout, seeking help when he should be thinking about the prom. It seemed clear that being flavor of the month wasn’t building Jack’s character any more than biting the heads off bats provided the great and bumbling Oz a foundation for fatherhood.
By my calculation the Osbournes are about 12 minutes into their allotted 15 minutes of fame. They are in the midst of the second of three seasons already shot, and Sharon is about to launch her new talk show. I can’t predict the success of her show, and really do wish her well, but Mrs. Osbourne’s recent public displays of temper make me wonder whether she is up to the grind of a five-day-a-week syndicated show.
What I do know is that both the pop glow and ratings have dimmed a bit already for The Osbournes. It still has cultural currency, but it is off about one-third from last year in audience-and the trend seems clear. It isn’t just that the show has gone away from being a kind of goofy party, with the libertine parents every kid dreams of, to this season’s story line involving the reality of Sharon Osbourne’s recurrence of cancer. It’s that a shooting star has a short brilliant life, and then it is little more than a trivia question.
A new survey by Bolt Inc., which operates a popular Web site aimed at 13- to 24-year-olds, surveyed a million members of its target audience. The good news for the Osbournes was that their show ranked highest in the study, with the most brand identity. The bad news is that the whole genre of what Bolt dubs “observational” reality is losing out to the burgeoning popularity of what they call “Romance Reality TV” (e.g. The Bachelor) and “Viewer Voter Shows,” most notably American Idol.
Bolt’s audience, which seeks out trends like a heat-seeking missile, loves Idol this season. But you knew that. What is surprising is that an amazing 91 percent surveyed promised they would watch it again next season. “The loyalty of the audience is enormous,” said Aaron Cohen, the New York-based chief executive of Bolt (on the Web at Bolt.com), which claims to be the second-most-visited site among teens behind America Online. Mr. Cohen is happy to be the national “water cooler” where teens meet before, after and during Idol to talk about their favorites and feel involved. That’s right: during. The survey indicated that as many as 80 percent “multitask” while watching. That means they are also on the computer, phone, doing homework or playing a video game.
“The future of reality TV,” adds Mr. Cohen, “has a lot to do with finding ways to emotionally invest this audience. There’s going to be a lot more integration between TV and the Internet.”
Many of those kids are already bored with TV, including reality TV, except for shows that have an almost magnetic appeal. The Osbournes’ train-wreck life has been one of them. “The Osbournes reflects the MTV sensibility of creating content around famous people,” said Mr. Cohen. “What American Idol does is engage those young people and make them feel as if they are participating in the process.”
So those headed to screening rooms to pick pilots, listen up. The message from these trendsetters is that there are many kinds of shows they will watch, but they must all have a TV-defined sense of being real, even if they are scripted.
An earlier generation loved contrived four-hanky romances and unidimensional macho action heroes; but these kids see right through anything that plays a false note. Raised from the cradle on TV, their perception is shaped by the sense that only what they can see on the tube is really real. That doesn’t mean they have taste. They would still rather watch a comic book come to life than a good drama. It just means they will click off anything that seems phony.
TV today is full of shows that try to deliver that level of hyper-reality. You can see it in everything from the intensity of ER to the realistic dialogue on CSI to the real-time sensibility of Fox’s trailblazing 24.
So advertisers, before you buy commercial time on these shiny new shows, heed these words from Mr. Cohen: “First, you can never go wrong buying American Idol. Second, try to get ahead of the curve instead of following the current trend. And third, hook up with media companies that can genuinely integrate their TV properties with their Internet counterparts.”
And save a little prayer for Jack Osbourne. He may or may not need it. Seventeen-year-olds are at times surprisingly resilient. The prayer is really for the rest of us, in a world where much of TV is designed for the Clearasil set living out their lives in Short Attention Span Theater.
And by the way, the survey also says that as much as they love reality shows, those teenagers love situation comedies even more. So the Holy Grail of TV still isn’t The Osbournes, it’s the next Friends. But then you probably already knew that.