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The Buzz About ‘Bobby’

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In today’s crowded marketplace, TV networks scramble for shows that will get people talking and keep them watching. ABC did it with “Desperate Housewives” and earlier this summer with “Dancing With the Stars.”

For the second half of a summer crowded with reality shows, Bravo has scored with “Being Bobby Brown,” which has built the kind of buzz that networks dream about.

Shot in a rough-and-tumble documentary style over about six months, “Being Bobby Brown” is an eye-opening look into the life of the faded pop star and his superstar wife, Whitney Houston.

What makes it a buzz show? “That’s very subjective,” said Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo. “It has to be interesting. It has to drive the things that drive buzz.”

The buzz is that Bravo has a very large hit in cable terms. According to Ms. Zalaznick, compared with a year earlier (already a good year for the network), Mr. Brown’s antics brought in younger viewers, which is good, and boosted ratings 38 percent among the key 18- to 34-year-old audience. The show has also helped drive up Bravo’s ratings for all three hours of prime time (8-11 p.m.) on the first six Thursday nights it aired by a whopping 41 percent in total households.

All this for a series many critics hate and some don’t think should ever have been made. The Hollywood Reporter’s TV critic Barry Garron in early July called it “undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television.” He said it lionized a “low life” who has been convicted of failing to pay child support, drunken driving and a cocaine-related parole violation.

The producers, who shot footage for the entire series before selling it to Bravo, certainly had no qualms about exposing the underside of Mr. Brown’s life to the public. Tracey Baker-Simmons, whose title at B2 Entertainment in Atlanta is “visionary” as well as executive producer, said they purposely kicked off the first of the initial eight episodes by documenting Mr. Brown as he left a Georgia jailhouse.

“Bobby is someone’s dad, someone’s husband, someone’s child,” said Ms. Baker-Simmons. “We all have flaws, whatever they may be. Some of us have public flaws and some don’t.”

Mr. Brown has said he did the show in part to revive his music career. Ms. Baker-Simmons said he also “sort of wanted his kids to have another public image of him besides being arrested and other things that the news was choosing to cover.”

For many viewers the series has turned out to be more about Ms. Houston, one of the most successful pop music artists of all time. In her heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s she had an unprecedented string of No. 1 hits. By the late ’90s most of her music was tied to film work. So far in this century, both her musical output and her film work have all but dried up.

Everything from her weight to her alleged drug use has been tabloid fodder, yet her image as a pop icon remained intact-at least until this show came along.

In an article on the show in Entertainment Weekly, writer Michael Slezak called Ms. Houston a “terrifying she-beast” and described her as a woman “so focused on having her every whim catered to that she lashes out against her husband, her pre-teen daughter, pretty much every person she encounters, with alarming frequency and unpredictability.”

But the writer is addicted

to the show: “I kinda love the Whitney Houston of ‘Being Bobby Brown.’ Or at least love to hate her. Or can’t take my eyes off her. Or something.”

Radio talk show host Larry Elder, a self-described black conservative, said, “Being Bobby Brown” shows all the “silly, vulgar, mundane things that go on between two people that I would think they would not want people to know about. Bodily functions. Disputes. Those things are just an absolute train wreck. And as a result it is fascinating viewing.”

To Mr. Elder, the train-wreck factor of the show is the inevitable result of the couple’s very public marriage. He recalled seeing Ms. Houston booed early in her career by an African American audience at the Soul Train Awards who thought her music was too commercial. “It is my armchair amateur psychologist position that the reason she married Bobby Brown was to change her image,” Mr. Elder said. “She wanted to be more urban. She wanted to be more street. She wanted to seem more real. And so, mission accomplished.”

Ms. Zalaznick sighed at the analogy that has been used repeatedly in connection with “Being Bobby Brown” that its attraction is similar to slowing down to rubberneck at a train wreck. “Everyone loves that phrase, but I’m not sure it’s true,” she said.

She also isn’t sure there will be a second season of “Being Bobby Brown.” She said there has been no discussion yet about a renewal, although Bravo did order two additional episodes from footage already shot.

Ms. Zalaznick also denied rumors that Mr. Brown and others involved have been so difficult that the show may not be renewed.

Ms. Baker-Simmons adamantly denied that there was a difficult situation. “I don’t know who would have said it was so difficult,” she said. “It was my partner [Wanda Shelley] and I who did it. And I really like them and enjoyed working with them.”

Mr. Elder said he knew “Being Bobby Brown” would be a hit the minute he saw the first episode: “It’s this beauty-and-the-beast kind of relationship they have. It’s Mike Tyson and Robin Givens. It’s just fascinating to watch. To peek behind the lives of the rich and famous is always interesting. … It’s watching somebody who had a wonderful image [Ms. Houston] engage in a slow meltdown.”

Mr. Brown was once the king of new jack swing. So far this series doesn’t appear to have revived his musical career, though he is said to be working on a new album. But the show has kept radio hosts, Internet bloggers and water-cooler gossips busy. Whether anyone will still care or remember come September is far from clear. But then, television is often disposable. The distressing part is that some of our greatest pop icons are just as disposable.