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‘Simple Life’ New Reality at Fox Studio

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

20th Century Fox has a pretty simple plan: Jump into a new genre and test a new business model in the process.
When Fox’s latest reality show “The Simple Life” debuts Tuesday, Dec. 2, it will mark 20th Century Fox’s first foray into developing reality programming.
“We’re really committed to scripted programming and it’s going to be the vast majority of what we do,” said Gary Newman, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television. “That being said, we are part of a company that is as big a content provider as there is. When a great idea comes up from someone inside our division, we’re going to pursue it whether it is scripted or unscripted or something else altogether.”
Producing a reality show meant coming up with a new business model. The studio is accustomed to producing scripted shows with the hopes of profiting on them when they go into syndication four years later. Because reality shows tend not to repeat well, there isn’t a huge syndicated market for them.
That’s why 20th has decided to release a DVD of “The Simple Life” the same week the show airs its finale on Fox. “It is an attempt to try to make a business out of this kind of programming,” Mr. Newman said. “It’s all a little bit of an experiment for us. The way the television audience is working right now, nothing seems to really be breaking out in large numbers, so if this show has good word of mouth, we believe a video release on the heels of the show wrapping up on the network potentially could be pretty successful.”
20th is betting that viewers will grow addicted to the exploits of socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie as they live on an Arkansas farm for a month.
The idea for “The Simple Life” was generated in 20th’s comedy department. Brad Johnson, senior VP of comedy development, said “Simple Life” was born out of a challenge from Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow and News Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin to find another way to do comedies outside of the traditional sitcom format.
“The areas that seemed simplest and cleanest was to go back to those high-concept ’60s sitcoms and say let’s do them for real,” Mr. Johnson said.
“The Simple Life” was inspired by “Green Acres,” a sitcom about a New York society couple who moved to a farm. Mr. Johnson said they originally thought of moving an entire family to the South, but at the same time the comedy department was developing the idea, Paris Hilton was meeting with the studio’s casting department.
Sharon Klein, senior VP of casting at the studio, said she was immediately fascinated by Ms. Hilton and wanted to do a show with her. “I’m used to meeting with actors who are putting on a facade,” Ms. Klein said. “She was so real. She was funny. At that first meeting she did not come off stupid. She was in her own reality and not embarrassed to talk about it. There was a sweetness to her.”
The two departments talked and realized they had their show: Send Ms. Hilton, who has never worked a day in her life, and a friend (Ms. Richie was cast later) to live and work on a farm.
At the time, the studio was working closely with Mike Darnell, head of reality programming at Fox, who liked the idea. “They wanted to see stilettos in cow shit,” Ms. Klein said.
Once Ms. Hilton was convinced to come on board, Fox and 20th hired established reality producer Bunim-Murray to produce. Bunim-Murray found the Leding family in Altus, Ark., for the girls to move in with.
“There’s a structure to storytelling in scripted programming that we tried as much as we could to impose on how we told the stories of what went on there,” said Mr. Johnson. “It’s a way of storytelling that isn’t just random slice of life. We worked with our editors and producers to impose a little bit of comedic editing and structure.
20th is developing several other reality shows. “You probably will see some more of this out of us,” Mr. Newman said.
Ms. Hilton has been in the news recently since a videotape of her having sex with an ex-boyfriend began circulating on the Internet. Because of the situation, Ms. Hilton has stopped doing publicity for “Simple Life.” Fox is planning a premiere party at a Los Angeles nightclub on Tuesday, Dec. 2, but sources said it is still up in the air whether Ms. Hilton will attend.