Docu-Soaps Topic of TCA Debate

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Depending on whom you asked at the cable portion of the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, ubiquitous docu-soap reality shows are either character-driven ratings grabbers fit for any brand or a cheap format that’s homogenizing basic cable and rapidly growing stale.

The docu-soap-a noncompetitive, serialized reality show, often spotlighting a celebrity or a unique profession-has become the most popular form of new original programming on the basic cable landscape, with many networks embracing the format.

In fact, most networks had a docu-soap or two to tout at the tour last week. BET announced one on Grambling State University’s football team (“Season of the Tiger”) and another on a hip-hop artist (“Lil’ Kim: Countdown to Lockdown”). A&E touted a docu-soap about a drag racer’s family (“Driving Force”) and rocker Gene Simmons (“Family Jewels”). E! had a panel for a docu-soap about the dating life of singer Lisa Loeb (“#1 Single”).

Lifetime talked about its first docu-soap, “Cheerleader Nation.” Bravo announced a docu-soap set in a gym (“Work Out”) and TV Land will chronicle the life of William Shatner (“Living in TV Land: William Shatner”). TLC also announced docu-soaps on young equestrians (“LA Riding Club”), a family

of little people (“Little People, Big Dreams”) and ice skaters (“Ice Diaries”).

“When you look at what’s been out there, this is just the beginning,” said Nancy Dubuc, senior VP of programming for A&E. “It’s still in its early stages in the marketplace. Some people call it the natural evolution of reality, some people call it an extension of the documentary. But they’re deeply seated in characters, whatever the genre may be.”

The advantages are that the shows have been a proven format for some networks, they’re inexpensive to produce and the concepts are often media-friendly and instantly “gettable”-whether it’s set in a hair salon (“Blow Out”), examines paranormal investigation (“Ghost Hunters”) or follows a tabloid-friendly celebrity (“Being Bobby Brown”).

The 1973 PBS series “An American Family,” a 12-part series about a dysfunctional family, is often credited as the first docu-soap reality series. But the format truly exploded on basic cable after A&E dramatically increased its ratings in 2004 with occupational docu-soaps like “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and “Airline,” while MTV hit paydirt with celebrity-driven outings such as “The Osbournes” and “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica.”

“What I love about the genre is you have a chance to tell stories that are not just surface, you dive into the world of authentic characters,” said Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, VP of development for BET. “The genre might produce similar shows, but the subjects are so diverse. The beauty of cable is you can have docu-soaps on Logo, Court TV and A&E and each will be very different and fit the network.”

Crowded Field

But as the field has become more crowded, recent efforts have struggled. The debut of A&E’s much-touted “Rollergirls” dropped from a premiere of 1.6 million viewers to 600,000 for its second episode, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Some network programmers said they eschew the format.

John Ford, National Geographic Channel’s executive VP of programming, said his network receives up to 10 docu-soap pitches per week-and turns them all down.

“We’re consciously not doing docu-soaps,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s a crowded field, it’s not our brand, they don’t repeat well. We never look at what somebody else produces and steer towards it.”

Oxygen President of Programming and Marketing Debby Beece also took issue with the format’s alleged lack of ability to repeat.

“I don’t usually like them as a format for us. To me it seems like eight to 10 episodes to nowhere,” she said. “I don’t know that people will come back to watch it again. Having said that, if a great docu-soap walked in today, I would want to grab it-but I haven’t seen one yet.”

Critics Complain

Some critics are also tiring of the format. Matt Roush of TV Guide recently singled out lurid celebrity docu-soaps such as VH1’s “Breaking Bonaduce” and Bravo’s “Being Bobby Brown” as particularly offensive.

“I do not find any of this the least bit amusing or compelling, the spectacle of pseudo-celebs baring all about their surreal lives, imagining themselves to be fascinating no matter how debased their behavior becomes,” Mr. Roush recently told TelevisionWeek. “VH1, MTV, Bravo, E! and A&E are all basically interchangeable many nights.”

Ted Harbert, president and CEO of E! Networks, agreed that docu-soaps causing network brands to blend is a legitimate concern. E! found modest success last year with the Playboy Mansion docu-soap “The Girls Next Door.”

“I agree with both sides,” Mr. Harbert said. “It’s a very valid format, no different than the prime-time soaps I used to work on, but it’s absolutely true they do blend together. Some of my competitors get in trouble when they’re not restricted by a brand. A&E can do anything from ‘Growing Up Gotti’ to ‘Dog’ to ‘Inked,’ but it blurs any chances of gaining a brand.”

Cable programming consultant Ray Solley said the format might have difficulty maintaining its current momentum.

“The casting is the most important part, and the situations and dramatic arcs that the cast live through tend to become more outrageous,” Mr. Solley said. “The less dramatic arcs become more blah and boring-like what ‘Fear Factor’ did to competition shows.”