Despite this Yogi-Berra-inspired ref lection, shows that once typically hired experts in the field or no-name reality hosts are suddenly tapping a rich American vein: superstars, old and new.
Among the stars populating the reality TV firmament: Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Vanilla Ice and the original A-Team’s Mr. T (“I pity the fool”), who all have shows on DIY; model Chrissy Teigen with a competition reality series on Spike; and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres leading a furniture design show on HGTV.
Network executives say the mix of screen and pop idols — and the millions of fans that follow them on social media — with popular reality-TV genres such as food preparation and home improvement has served up a successful ratings dish.
“Celebrities always bring name value to a show and they bring their fans,” GSN network programming chief Amy Introcaso-Davis said. “Due to their background and talent, it automatically gives viewers a buy-in to the show.”
TV shows have always dipped into the celebrity pool for talent. But now they’re everywhere. Currently, celebrity-led shows such as Spike’s Teigen/LL Cool J hosted Lip Sync Battle; DIY’s Vanilla Ice Project; HGTV’s furniture design series Ellen’s Design Challenge with DeGeneres and GSN’s Rebecca Romijn-hosted body painting series Skin Wars are the most-watched series for their respective networks as viewers flock to see their favorite stars in different roles.
“By bringing the television cameras in we’re giving the viewers access to a celebrity that is so personal and so intimate that it’s so different than watching them act a part or appear on Entertainment Tonight for an interview,” Kathleen Finch, president of Scripps networks HGTV, DIY and Great American Country, said. “It’s a whole different personal look at a celebrity and I think that’s what has caught fire with our viewers.”
Indeed, Scripps’s HGTV, DIY, Food Network, Cooking Channel and Great American Country have parlayed celebrity-driven home improvement, cooking, decorating and gardening shows into big ratings.
HGTV and DIY in particular were among a handful of networks to post year-to-year ratings gains in 2014, and both networks posted double digit primetime ratings gains in the first quarter of 2015.
Finch attributes much of DIY’s ratings growth in recent years to the success of Vanilla Ice Project, which launched in 2010 and followed the 1990s rapper as he rebuilt his home. Now in its fourth season, the show remains the network’s most-watched series.
“What we’re doing is following Vanilla Ice as he does what he’s been doing for several years, which is renovate homes in Florida,” Finch said. “We found a way to tell a story to our DIY audience that has really resonated and it’s one of the biggest hits we’ve had on television and on social media platforms.”
Scripps Networks has also tapped other celebrities, such as Shatner (DIY’s The Shatner Project), Daryl Hall (DIY’s Daryl’s Restoration Over-Hall), Rev. Run from rap group Run-DMC (DIY’s Rev Run’s Renovation), Jenny Garth (HGTV’s The Jenny Garth Project), Tia Mowry (Food Network’s Tia Mowry At Home), Haylie Duff (Cooking Channel’s Real Girls’ Kitchen) and country music singer Trisha Yearwood (Food Network’s Trisha’s Southern Kitchen), for series showcasing their passion projects.
Even rugged 1980’s actor Mr. T and comedy actor Jim Belushi have signed on to host DIY series later this year.
Celebrities don’t always have to get their hands dirty to generate appeal to viewers and network executives. Knowledgeable insight into a particular hobby such as antiques collecting and design, as offered by such as Good Morning America co-host Lara Spencer in HGTV and GAC’s Flea Market Flip, can also deliver sizable audience dividends, Finch said.
On Spike, LL Cool J and Teigen use their communications skills and appeal to host game show Lip Sync Battle. The series — which pits celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Anne Hathaway and Mike Tyson to see who can best move their lips to classic and contemporary songs — has become the network’s most successful show ever, averaging more than 3 million viewers.
“The celebrities are all doing things that are kind of against what they’re known for,” Spike president Kevin Kay said. “If you brought people off the street to do the same thing I don’t think you get that same effect.”
Network executives say celebrities are just as enthusiastic about participating in these series as the networks are in drawing them in.
“The ta lent that really works best on air is the talent that is already in the home space and then we just follow them with cameras,” Finch said. “It’s kind of a mixture of things — sometimes they ask and sometimes we hear about a celebrity renovating a home and we’ll ask if they’d be willing to have a camera follow along.”
Cooking Channel general manager Michael Smith said celebrities mostly approach the network to develop shows that revolve around their love of traditional and fine cuisine.
“They’re constantly playing roles and characters, and the only time they actually have a chance to show who they really are and show their own authenticity is on a talk show or in a People magazine interview,” he said. “They love the opportunity in a cooking show to be themselves and share what they’re passionate about.”
Actress Tia Mowry, who last month launched Tia’s Home Cooking on Cooking Channel, said she’s not surprised that celebrities and viewers are gravitating to the genre.
“I think a lot of people are like me who want to know more about [celebrity lives],” said Mowry, who’s also a fan of Yearwood’s Trisha’s Southern Kitchen on Food Network.
“You want to know how do they live, and how do they make their world go round, and I think that’s what’s so interesting about these shows,” Mowry said. “You get to know who they are. You get to know their family, and a lot of times you don’t really get to see that.”
Finch cautions that, regardless of their popularity, not every celebrity can drive a successful niche-targeted series. Each personality has to come off as authentic to the task they’re performing.
“We’re not going to take just any old movie star and put a hammer in their hand and ask people to believe they know what they’re doing,” she said. “We really have to make sure the person belongs on our air.”
Introcaso-Davis agreed the celebrities have to have some tie-in with the project or show’s theme to be successful. Romijn’s starring role as body-painted villain Mystique in the X-Men film franchise gave her credibility as host for GSN’s Skin Wars, the body-painting competition show that became the network’s most-watched series ever in its freshman run last year.
“Rebecca was a bull’s-eye for us because she is the most recognizable painted person in the world,” said Introcaso-Davis. “When you have guest hosts or judges that have to do with something related to the show, it works — you don’t put a celebrity in just to put in a celebrity. It needs to work within the creative.”
Not only do celebrities bring name recognition to the series, they also bring millions of fans who follow them on social media, which gives the shows an added marketing boost when the stars tweet or add Facebook posts about their experiences.
Spike’s Kay said a YouTube video of Anne Hathaway lip-syncing to the Miley Cyrus hit Wrecking Ball drew 2 million views days before the episode aired.
Added GSN’s Introcaso-Davis: “These celebrities have big Twitter and Facebook followings and the talent is always interested in building that following. The shows work for all involved because [the shows] serve as marketing tool for both the talent and the network.”