Brian Lowry

A former network executive recently emailed a question that almost sounded like the song "1985," asking, "When did reality TV players become 'stars?'"

"Reality program performers, contestants, have reached the pinnacle," he wrote. "They are all now referred to as 'reality stars.' ... Just like all porn performers are 'porn stars.' Success is wonderful."

But they are indeed now "stars" of the bustling media universe, with all the benefits -- and baggage -- that entails. And their celebrity viability has consequences for traditional performers, inasmuch as "The Bachelor's" betrayals and Jon and Kate Gosselin's marital woes regularly grace tabloids and magazine covers, with no line of demarcation between them and what we used to think of as "stars."

The rise of reality contestants has occurred gradually, even within a genre only a decade old in its current guise. At first reality players seemed like highly disposable commodities -- people who could be counted on to flame brightly if the show featuring them caught on before returning to their lives, perhaps a little richer and with a story to tell the grandkids.

Only now, because of the unquenchable demand for programming and recognizable "talent," they aren't being disposed of. Instead, they're recycled, creating a permanent reality-TV class accustomed to living their lives on camera -- the ever-ready-for-primetime players (and on a budget!).

Their ascension within celebrity circles can be easily chronicled simply by flipping through the pages of US Weekly and People. And while interest in these newly minted stars hasn't dampened enthusiasm for actor gossip, the migration into spheres once reserved for performers should send shudders up the spine of anyone holding a SAG card.

For networks, the tradeoff is that reality "stars" represent a rather combustible group, who can quickly send a valuable unscripted franchise skidding off the rails. Of course, actors can (and do) behave badly at times, but the need for agents and a modicum of talent adds helpful layers to the screening process.

No channel has been more aggressive about wringing additional uses from its reality chattel than VH1, which saw that strategy conspicuously blow up in its face. Ryan Jenkins, who committed suicide after allegedly murdering his ex-wife, model Jasmine Fiore, had appeared in "Megan Wants a Millionaire," which the channel abruptly pulled after only a few episodes, and the third edition of "I Love Money," which has also been scrapped.

That Jenkins clearly hadn't been well vetted for past transgressions and still wound up on two VH1 shows speaks volumes about the appetite for willing TV fodder fitting the extraverted profile that producers seek. Yet that's a relatively modest niche compared to the day-in-the-life genre that continues to track the stars of "Jon and Kate Plus 8," as producers grapple with what happens when the newly split couple's equation has become "Kate Minus Jon, Plus Girlfriends."

Thanks to this formula, entire families have begun spending their lives in the spotlight. Bruce Jenner's biological sons turned up on "Princes of Malibu," a short-lived Fox series. The former Olympian had better luck with his stepdaughters via E!'s "Keeping Up with Kardashians," which birthed the spinoff "Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami."

In terms of gaming the system, nobody has kept in the public eye with less merit than Spencer and Heidi Pratt -- "The Hills" stars who proved completely unctuous on NBC's "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!," as they complained about being forced to share screen time with what they deemed an inferior class of celebrities -- including, you know, actors.

Ultimately, you're in trouble when Geraldo Rivera begins sounding like a voice of reason, expressing disdain for the stage management permeating the genre as he denounced those responsible for "Jon and Kate." "These TV traumas are controlled by producers who create artificial cliffhangers," he told the New York Post. "There's not a moment of true spontaneity."

Indeed, spontaneity and authenticity would seem to be the first casualties when what was a temporary experience for ordinary folk becomes a full-blown career/lifestyle for budding "stars." And after the tragedy of the Jenkins case, let's hope they're the last casualties that can be associated, even peripherally, with reality TV.






Reality TV Breeds New Star System