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Rockers turn down the volume for reality TV

Not long ago, the names Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Gene Simmons, Bret Michaels and Meat Loaf were favored musicians among the rebellious teens. Now, these monsters of rock are pussycats of reality shows.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Meat Loaf may be known for his loud rock and power ballads as well as his heavy-set, sweaty, menacing persona. But backstage, he's a complete softy.

"When we met with him to talk about his coming on ("Celebrity Apprentice"), we went backstage at one of his concerts," said executive producer Eden Gaha. "He holds every fan's attention that turns up to meet him, for as long as it takes. He's just so … personable."

"Personable" may not be the first adjective one thinks of to describe a rocker, but it's true of the Loaf — and that made him an excellent candidate for "Celebrity Apprentice 4," which premieres Sunday, March 6 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC. But he's far from the first hard rocker to step away from the concert arena for the glare of the small screen.

Not long ago, the names Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Gene Simmons, Bret Michaels (who won last year's "Celebrity Apprentice") and Meat Loaf were favored musicians among the rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers. Now, these monsters of rock are pussycats of reality television.

And audiences are lapping it up.

"I've known Bret Michaels forever," said Eddie Trunk, host of VH1 Classics' "That Metal Show" and author of "Eddie Trunk's Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal." "But all of a sudden, I'm at a family function a year ago and my aunt comes up to me and says how much she loves Bret, and do I know him? And I'm like, 'Where did that come from?' "

Perhaps the unexpected admiration for the bad boys comes from the sense of a genuine personality, one that is emerging from beneath an expected stereotypical rock-star persona.

"They have naturally extroverted personalities, and when you see them be their rock star self — though in a more humanizing dynamic — that's an appealing combination," said Monica Herrera, news editor for "They have a larger-than-life personality, but then they make themselves vulnerable."

"Who knew Steven Tyler had a cheeky sense of humor and a real heart?" asked Gaha of the new "American Idol" judge. "The thing is, there's an authenticity about the formats of reality shows that let these rockers be exactly who they really are. We feel like we're getting the real deal with them."

Not everyone's happy with the homogenization of the rock boogeyman, however. Many fans disown their former idols for what they believe is selling out. But in doing that, fans may miss out on their best chance to understand the human being behind the bluster and persona.

"People I know who are close to people like Ozzy and Gene Simmons say that on the shows, (the musicians are) a lot closer to what they really are than that (stage) persona," said Trunk. "Now they know that it's OK to showcase yourself in a different light, that you can let down your guard and not always be mysterious and intimidating."

Reality's love affair with rockers began with the 2002-2005 hit MTV series "The Osbournes," which followed the onetime "Prince of Darkness" and his family around their Los Angeles home. The show quickly became one of the network's biggest hits, thanks to the clan's giant personalities and Ozzy's own very low-key, History Channel-watching, occasionally bumbling self.

"What you were most surprised about was how likable he was, and how he functioned as a normal dad," recalled Lee Rolontz, executive vice president of original music production for VH1 and VH1 Classics. "This heavy metal star was dealing with the same dad/father/husband problems we all do."

Quickly following in Ozzy's footsteps were Simmons ("Gene Simmons' Family Jewels," which has been running on A&E since 2006); Michaels (whose "Rock of Love" series ran from 2007-2009; post-"Apprentice" he appeared in "Bret Michaels: Life as I Know It"); and Tyler, whose sheer personality and charisma on "Idol" this season is overshadowing even fellow new judge and superstar Jennifer Lopez.

"These are characters and personalities that created a unique voice for themselves, and people want to see something original on TV," said Leslie Greif, who created "Family Jewels." "When they create a window into their personality, we want to go on that ride with them."

A win-win situation
Of course, underneath all of that baring of personality and authentic behavior is a calculated marketing machine: Most of the aging rockers having the greatest success in reality TV have been in the business for decades, and have worked their core fan base just about as much as they can.

Faced with retirement or reinvention, they're choosing the latter — and reaping the rewards. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of Aerosmith's greatest hits collections have surged 250 percent since Tyler made his debut on "Idol" in January.

As for Simmons' show, "It's completely reinvigorated the KISS brand," said Greif. "It's reinvigorated ticket sales, it's brought a whole new fan base to the shows and it helps re-create the brand. It keeps Gene current, and it keeps him vital."

It sounds like a win-win situation all around: Rock stars earn themselves a new generation of fans, producers get great television and audiences learn that rockers are people, too. These rock stars are not just worth watching, they can be more interesting than a thousand Snookis or Situations.

But then again, maybe not everyone wins. Hardcore, lifelong Aerosmith fan Trunk, for one, is having a hard time digesting Tyler's defection.

"It crushed me," he said. "I'm not the only one. At the end of the day, he's judging a karaoke contest."

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.

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