What makes a show really hit home for viewers?

Friday, May 1st, 2009

By Mike Tucker

"I must have evilness to me, but I love Tamra."

"No wonder you like Tamra, you're ignorant, just like her."

Whoa, ladies. It's just TV. Or is it?

The "Tamra" mentioned in this Facebook exchange is Tamra Barney, one of the leggy mamas of Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

It's cable TV series such as "Real Housewives," TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8," Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star," BBC America's "Top Gear," and The Golf Channel's "The Haney Project" that turn TV into something much bigger and more personal for millions of viewers, who find themselves riveted to the series, exploring cable networks' Web sites, chatting about their favorite moments on blogs—and arguing on Facebook.

"Real Housewives," for instance, "is such a beautiful train wreck that they can't help watching," says Ms. Barney, one of a half-dozen sexy housewives who reveal the joys and pain of domestic life in the tony California community. "The more raw you are and the more down to earth, the higher the ratings." "Real Housewives of Orange County," headed into its fifth season on Bravo, posted a 45 percent ratings increase during its fourth season, averaging more than 2 million viewers a week.

That rawness goes beyond boobs and Botox. Certainly there are the catty remarks and episodes of self-absorption. But Ms. Barney and her friends also deal with highly emotional issues that aren't specific to the upper classes—including troubled marriages, health matters and vexing offspring. Ms. Barney says reconciling with her estranged father was therapeutic for her and viewers.

Frances Berwick, exec VP-general manager at NBC Universal's Bravo, says "real stories" drive the show's success with viewers and has advertisers such as Procter & Gamble Co. committed to the entire "Real Housewives" franchise—in Orange County, New York, Atlanta and the newest, New Jersey, premiering May 12.

Sometimes what has cable viewers talking around the water cooler or on Facebook comes as a surprise. This year it's been supercharged car maniacs, superb competition, superstar athletes trying a new sport—and supersized families.

Controlled chaos—that's what you get when the Gosselins come into your home in TLC's big hit "Jon & Kate Plus 8." That's because the family includes twins Cara and Madelyn, who will be 9 years old on Oct. 8, and their sextuplet siblings, who will be 5 on May 10—Alexis, Aaden, Collin, Leah, Hannah and Joel. Whew!

Remembering who's who would be exhausting enough for most folks, but this slice-of-life series knows how to tug at the heartstrings because the stars don't play fair. The Gosselin kids actually act like kids as opposed to TV stars, who act like spoiled kids.

"Controlled chaos and unbelievably adorable children is really working for our audience," says Eileen O'Neill, president-general manager of TLC. "We've been able to put a good recipe together—relatable content that delivers a strong entertainment value."

Even kid-hating curmudgeons can enjoy Dad trying to keep up; Mom taking charge; the twins being sweet and hamming it up; and the sextuplets laughing, learning and caring for each other. Everyday occurrences are the fabric of the show—starting preschool, hiring a nanny, a visit to the dentist. Just like most families, except with eight—count 'em—eight kids.

But the backbone of the storyline is love—two people coping and caring for their kids, a message leveraged online with games, photos and video.

"There's a fascination with just the logistics of managing—herding eight kids, and feeding eight kids and just how you need to think about your world," Ms. O'Neill says. "Jon and Kate's reactions to their kids are definitely memorable and add to the entertainment value."

Viewers agree. The March 23 season finale was the show's highest-rated episode ever, seen by 4.6 million viewers. And the success of "Jon & Kate" has spawned a group of extended family series, including TLC's new "Table for 12."

On a completely different type of reality show, BBC America's "Top Gear," it's clear that hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond know how to get the "oohs and ahs" out of their audience. The peculiar and unique content is raucous joy: exotic cars, faraway locales, guest celebrities taxing their driving skills on the track and "The Stig," a mysterious test driver who trains guests and posts lap times for the show but who is always seen with his helmet on.

It's a car-review show with a twist of celebrity. A dash of British humor. And a fierce commitment to celebrating car culture.

"It's not an under-the-hood show only," says Richard DeCroce, senior VP-programming for BBC America. "There's a real chemistry between the hosts. They hold each other to a high standard and have a lot of fun."

Here's how "Top Gear" defines fun: A race between a Bugatti Veyron and a jet fighter. Motorbiking across Vietnam. Racing on the Salt Flats. Playing soccer in small cars with giant balls. Sending a car down a ski-jumping hill. The inspired lunacy is paying off.

"Our advertisers are looking for a show that can get them that elusive younger male viewer, and 'Top Gear' does bring in a large male audience—upscale, media-savvy and tech-savvy," Mr. De Croce says. "We're on Monday at 8 p.m., and this very loyal audience knows it. It's available on video on demand the next day, on iTunes 24 hours later and TopGear.com, which we launched last year. Everything promotes back to the channel."

Is it working? Yes.

The Web site delivers more than 1 million video streams. And the cable show enjoys more than a half-million viewers per broadcast—an audience with a median age of 35 and lots of money.

The same level of passion the "Top Gear" trio brings to their show is seen in Aaron McCargo Jr. When Mr. McCargo was crowned the newest Caesar of the food world last summer, his competitors didn't turn into culinary Brutuses and plunge chef's knives in his back. Instead, they hugged him and wished him well as "The Next Food Network Star."

"It's the kind of tone we like to keep: a positive, collaborative environment," says Bob Tuschman, senior VP-programming and production at Scripps' Food Network. "Each chef desperately wants to win, so there's no shortage of drama. But ultimately, it's competitive without being malicious.

"We are not looking for the typical reality show villains and people viewers are going to hate. We're looking for people that the audience will fall in love with, develop a strong personal connection to and want to see become the next star."

But superior cooking skills alone do not a star make. Food Network hopefuls must also have television skills, a great personality, an ability to connect with the audience—affability factors that are easy to understand in light of the network's promotion, ad strategies and its ever-growing Web presence.

"That's what makes our reality show one of the toughest on TV," says Mr. Tuschman, who also serves as a judge on the show. "You have to have two distinctive skills." Sometimes what viewers connect with is a superstar who struggles with the same problems they do."

Watching basketball legend Charles Barkley swing a golf club is akin to watching a tragic love story. He loves the game so much—how can he be so bad at it?

So it's not surprising that the suits at the Golf Channel decided to make Mr. Barkley's wacky swing the subject of the new series "The Haney Project. "The real-life series pairs the popular sports commentator and former NBA star with Hank Haney, the celebrated swing coach to another sports legend, Tiger Woods.

So far, everybody's smiling. Here's why:

  • It's the highest-rated debut of an original series in Golf Channel history.
  • The second episode prompted the highest number of page views in a day at thegolfchannel.com.
  • Video views on the Web site during that period accounted for 84 percent of all views.

"It's obvious the show is driving new viewers to our network. When the show comes on the air, the ratings spike," says Page H. Thompson, Golf Channel president.

"The show's a hit because golfers of every level can relate to the insecurity and frustration that Charles feels," Mr. Thompson says. "Golf is a humbling game, and people relate to that."