Reality Helps: TV Turns To Life-Changing Shows

Some of A&E's biggest stars next season will likely be
alcoholics, junkies and other addicts.

The network will run a second season of reality show
Intervention, thanks to the notable success
of its first season, with 13 episodes slated for fourth quarter. Since its
launch in March, the heart-wrenching series has averaged 1.3 million total
viewers—making it A&E's second-highest-rated program, behind
Dog the Bounty Hunter.

Intervention presents
straightforward portraits of addicts of various substances and practices who
have agreed to film a documentary about addiction, then surprises them with an
intervention attended by family members and friends.

The show and a bevy of new ones like it demonstrate that audiences
crave programs that document the vulnerable moments of a person's life, then
purport to heal the subjects they profile. Possibly a reaction to
mean-spirited, elimination-based competitions, the life-changing series have
earned ratings and accolades for the networks. HBO is still airing 85-minute
documentary Rehab, and ABC (The Miracle Workers) and NBC (Three Wishes) are looking to pull in viewers with
upcoming life-changing reality series.

But the emerging genre raises questions of how responsible the networks
are to the people they profile. Critics ask how ethical it is to be playing out
someone's personal struggles on TV. “Shows like Intervention trivialize the disease and how serious it
is,” says John Schwarzlose, president/CEO of the Betty Ford Center. “Why
does this need to be on TV? This is a private thing. I don't see what good it
does, I just don't. Have a documentary and show the value of interventions,
but don't go into the middle of families.”

Intervention-themed shows made the rounds for years, with skittish
executives at other networks passing on its controversial subject matter.
“The real question was, were we going to be able to do this?” says Nancy
Dubuc, A&E senior VP, non-fiction and alternative programming. “You're
essentially helping get people to rehab if they so choose.” A&E
executives eventually gave the show the nod to go to series after an emotional
pilot impressed them.

Intervention presents its
subjects' entire progression into the grips of dependence. Episodes begin
with family members, and often the addicts themselves, wistfully describing the
subjects' pre-addiction lives. Jeff VanVonderen, the show's Dr. Phil-like
star, says that interventions are a shock to the recipient. “You can't send
somebody a Hallmark card and say, we're inviting you to your intervention
next Saturday.”

The show follows its subjects right up to rehab and usually provides a
brief update on how they are doing later. To Dubuc, this sets
Intervention apart from other addiction
reality shows. “We're not there to exploit people and show them at rock
bottom and walk away,” she says. “That's going too far.”

Furthermore, A&E says, it has teamed with Partnership for a
Drug-Free America to co-produce town-hall meetings with Time Warner affiliates
in Houston and Cincinnati later this month as part of a public-outreach
campaign. Producers will film government officials and community members
affected by addictions for a classroom special.

Programming execs have long seen story-telling value in the life-change
theme. MTV's Made, a “lifestyle-makeover
series” that coaches young people in pursuit of a transformation, starts its
sixth season June 15.

This summer, ABC will bring back Brat
, in which six families send their wayward teens to behavior
camp. Come midseason, it will follow up with The
Miracle Workers
, which features a dream team of doctors who grant
patients life-changing treatment they otherwise couldn't access or

NBC this fall will debut Three
, an hour-long reality show in which born-again country singer
Amy Grant leads a team to small towns across America to “transform hopes into
a life-changing reality,” says the network. NBC started pursuing life-change
reality shows a year ago when it greenlighted the pilot for this season's
weight-loss challenge, The Biggest Loser.
After the show improved ratings in its time period by 116%, NBC shot several
life-changing reality pilots this year and put Three
to series.

“It was as much to be different as to be positive,” says NBC
Executive VP Jeff Gaspin, who gave Three
its go-ahead. “How many more 16-contestant, two-team
vote-off shows can you have?”