IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

When real life intrudes into reality TV

Reality shows are often maligned for being fake, but when illness or even death intrudes, as with Bret Michaels' hospitalization, programs can rise to the occasion.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Jeff Olde was psyched. Last spring, the VH1 executive had just screened Bret Michaels’ new pilot “Life as I Know It,” for network bosses, and it had gone well. Poison frontman Michaels was beloved at VH1, thanks to his “Rock of Love” shows, and he’d begun to earn attention for his appearances on NBC's “Celebrity Apprentice.” But Olde was having trouble passing on the good news to Michaels.

For good reason: Just a short time earlier, Michaels’ afternoon of channel surfing had been interrupted when he suffered a brain hemorrhage.

“My brain exploded,” said Michaels later. “That is so not a way for a rock star to go out.”

Slideshow

Bret Michaels

The rocker found fame with the glam-metal band Poison and hangs onto that fame as a reality TV star.

The rocker would eventually recover and surge forward, winning “Celebrity Apprentice,” appearing on “American Idol” and even returning to touring. But all that was unknown when Olde first heard the news. Of course he was concerned for the musician's health, but he also had to think about would happen to the show.

“You make a great plan for what you think a show will be, and then you step out of the way when real life supersedes what you’re trying to create,” Olde said. “It changed a lot of things for us — and at the same time, it didn’t change a lot.”

Those changes will now be part of “Life,” which goes into full series mode on Oct. 18 on VH1. No longer is it just about the wacky life of a middle-aged rock star. A layer of pathos underscores everything Michaels does from here on out.

“This is where reality TV trumps scripted TV,” said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. “Scripted TV doesn’t have an actor pretending to recover from a brain hemorrhage on TV right now — reality TV has the ability to give us that. I’m much more excited to see Bret Michaels make dinner, underscored by the fact that he’s recovering, than some actors doing a formula and reading lines.”

'Sister Wives' family investigated for bigamy

Reality television is often maligned for showing too much in the name of getting real: Eating worms, vomiting, a watermelon in the face, hair-pulling, drunken brawls, and overall clueless and crass behavior. There’s enough of this to fuel E!’s “The Soup” every week.

Rising to the occasionYet when the events of real life actually take over the mundane and silly, reality shows themselves often rise to the occasion. When Captain Phil Harris died during production of Discovery Channel’s popular “Deadliest Catch,” producers had to figure out what to show and what to leave out.

'Deadliest Catch' trio rejoins reality show

“We had to do something that was honest and authentic, but also that had some class,” said Thom Beers, CEO of production company Original Productions and "Catch's" executive producer.

“This is not a hospital drama,” Beers said. “It’s not a scripted show where the doctor says ‘clear!’ We were there for (Harris' medical treatment), but none of it will see the light of day.”

Instead, the series showed one of Harris’ sons phoning another to say their father was gone, and kept the scenes of Harris in a hospital bed to a minimum.

Class aside, Beers admits he was surprised at the resulting ratings — between 2 and 3 million more people tuned in than he expected for Harris’ final episode. “Those were people who tuned in to see someone die on television,” he says. “There’s a disparity between what you expect to see, and what you need to show. You have to balance it.”

Beers’ shows are often high-octane and high-adrenaline looks into dangerous jobs; over time, he’s lost four stars, including “PitchMen” star Billy Mays, who died in 2009 just a few months into the series’ first season. In that case, the series was quickly reshaped to focus on Mays’ co-star Anthony Sullivan and product inventors.

Reality shows must always face the chance that real-life events will mean they've got to rewrite or re-edit an entire series. Most of the time, they’ve got all the material they need to do so — producers and editors routinely sift through hundreds of hours of material per hour of aired material. That means they capture pretty much everything, and to Mark Cronin, co-owner and executive producer at 51 Minds (they’re behind “Life” and the “Rock of Love” series, plus “Flavor of Love” and “The Surreal Life,” among others), it’s all fair game.

“In the case of Bret, we had to stop filming for a while, but it’s not, ‘Oh, shoot, stupid real life getting in the way of our ideal reality world,’” Cronin says. “We’re trying to tell the generally true story of what happened. We’re never inconvenienced by the true story.”

Nor is 495 Productions founder and president SallyAnn Salsano, who runs four shifts of crew every day shooting “Jersey Shore” 24/7. She considers her show a “true documentary” and would put everything on the air if she could — and that includes co-star Snooki’s recent arrest for disorderly conduct.

It works, she says, because her stars “know they’re on camera and they’re well aware of how it goes down after three seasons. They have made the commitment to themselves to say, ‘This is who I am, and just film it.’ So we do.”

That said, celebrities like Michaels retains far more control over what makes it to air than more unknown cast members. When “Life” continued shooting, he was given a wide berth to guide the filming.

“Not every single second needs to be shown on TV,” says Michaels. “There are absolute parts of your life that will remain private.”

That seems to work for VH1, which undoubtedly will do well with “Life” — perhaps because now they have an uplifting, “real life” story to tell. “Bret’s a character you root for anyway,” says Olde. “His story now isn’t about being a guy who got hit by a brain hemorrhage; he’s the guy who got back on stage. It isn’t about doctor's visits and contemplating life, it’s about going out and living it.”

Michaels himself has found a silver lining in it all: While hospitalized and tested during his hemorrhage recovery, he learned he had a hole in his heart. He’ll be operated on that next January.

“I look at it in a positive way,” he says. “Maybe the brain hemorrhage saves my life in the long run.”

Either way, it looks like VH1 will have another great, real story for season two.

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.