TV Networks Turn To Celebrities To Boost Ratings

ABC TV rolls out a new version of an old show Tuesday — this time its Celebrity Wife Swap. The old Wife Swap wasn't getting great ratings, so they needed to up their game. Eric Deggans, the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, explains what celebrities do for reality shows.

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Several reality shows are starting new seasons on network TV, including "American Idol," "The Biggest Loser," and "The Bachelor." ABC is trying to revive one of its faltering hits by making "Wife Swap" into "Celebrity Wife Swap." The makeover caught the attention of TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS: When it came time to reboot "Wife Swap," ABC had one obvious option.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #`: ABC has swapped wives with pirates, dirt eaters, even hillbillies. And January 3rd, you won't believe who's swapping now.

FLAVOR FLAV: Flavor Flav.

DEGGANS: Like so many so-called reality TV shows in America, "Wife Swap" is actually an overseas import. We can thank the Brits for the wonderful idea of exchanging mothers from different families for fun and drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WIFE SWAP")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Over lunch, Paul throws Vanessa a lifeline. She'll get out of the house, because tonight she'll be his lovely assistant in his magic show.

DEGGANS: They also pioneered the idea of creating a celebrity version when the concept got a little stale. Here's a sample of that British show with rocker Pete Burns from '80s one hit wonder, Dead or Alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CELEBRITY WIFE SWAP")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's the next morning and it's Pete's birthday, but there's no room for celebration just yet. Whilst Pebble's has her morning nap, under Pete's new rules, Razor must do all the household chores.

DEGGANS: ABC will try the same setup on its U.S. version. Rocker Dee Snider switches wives with rapper Flavor Flav. Pastor Ted Haggard trades spouses with showbiz calamity Gary Busey. And actress Tracey Gold exchanges households with singer Carnie Wilson. It's train wreck television. With Busey and Flavor Flav on hand, it's a virtual guarantee.

But celebrities are also a prime way to juice an established reality TV premise. Just ask NBC, which saved Donald Trump's "Apprentice" franchise by dumping the unknown business school graduates who once filled the cast. Instead, they created a celebrity edition with the likes of Piers Morgan, Joan Rivers and, of course, Gary Busey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CELEBRITY APPRENTICE")

GARY BUSEY: I'm very mysterious when I work. And I'm also trained in neural linguistic programming, which means I can watch people's eyes when they're talking to me and tell if they're lying, telling the truth or making up a story that has nothing to do with the subject we're talking on.

DEGGANS: Busey has appeared in at least five other unscripted series, including "Celebrity Rehab," where a doctor suggested a brain injury might cause some of his problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CELEBRITY REHAB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Any surgeries ever?

BUSEY: Brain surgery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: For? For what?

BUSEY: Brain. The brain.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, what was the problem?

BUSEY: Not a problem, it was an event that happened on December 4th, 1988.

DEGGANS: He got in a motorcycle accident which split his head open. Now, some of the odd behavior which once seemed funny may be cast in a different light.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CELEBRITY REHAB")

BUSEY: I have what's called angelic interventions to straighten me out when I'm not thinking clearly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Good for you. Do you listen to them?

BUSEY: Oh, I listen to them. I feel it. I taste it. I am it.

DEGGANS: These unscripted shows work best when the celebrities melt down. In moments, they become characters in a bruising soap opera, playing themselves.

It seems our fascination with fame-tinged drama has created a special class of celebrity, one willing to endure all kinds of televised trials to feed our hunger for humiliating big shots. The only question left is whether we lose a little piece of our humanity while watching celebrities forced to expose their own.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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