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Bad behavior on reality TV is tested path to fame

Published: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 2:30 p.m. CDT
Caption
This Monday, June 3, 2013 photo, shows Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale, Ariz. The restaurant is now hiring staff again. The restaurant temporarily closed after their "Kitchen Nightmares" episode aired. The episode of "Kitchen Nightmares" drew more than a million viewers on YouTube, and restaurateur Amy Bouzaglo's vitriolic rants became popular fodder on Twitter and Facebook. Bouzaglo announced she is shopping around her own reality TV show. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona restaurateur Amy Bouzaglo became an instant Internet celebrity last month after demonstrating an impressively short temper on a reality TV show that helps reform struggling businesses.

The episode of "Kitchen Nightmares" drew more than a million viewers on YouTube, and Bouzaglo's vitriolic rants became popular fodder on Twitter and Facebook.

So it should surprise no one that her next step was to announce she was shopping around her own reality TV show.

These days, head butting, table flipping, belly slapping, hair pulling, smack talking and other behavior generally considered impolite have become a tested strategy for reality TV fame, as seen in the proliferation of such shows as "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," ''Basketball Wives" and the "Real Housewives" franchise.

Some reality "stars" have become brands of their own after churning out self-help books, hair products, cocktail lines and flavored water. And the next generation of more shocking, immoral and declassee reality celebrities always seems just one face-slap away.

"That's the easiest kind of reality show to make and to sell," said Jason Carbone, a veteran reality TV producer behind shows such as "Road Rules," ''The Bachelor" and "Run's House."

"It's something where there are loud characters doing stupid, obnoxious things and you are either laughing with them or at them," he said.

Richard Hatch became America's favorite villain when he won the first season of the CBS reality series "Survivor" in 2000 by forming alliances and otherwise acting strategically. His behavior likely would be considered tame compared to the current crop of bad boys and girls, said Max Dawson, a reality TV show consultant in Los Angeles.

"He didn't pull weaves out and attack the other contestants on social media while the show was airing," Dawson said.

While cast members once had an entire season to build a character arc, social media now incentivizes villains to immediately act outrageous.

"Any moment is not only going to be discussed ad nauseam on Twitter, it's going to be uploaded on YouTube, it will be turned into an image meme, it will instantly, in most cases, go viral," Dawson said.

Modern television has become so predictably vulgar that a PBS station in New York recently launched a series of subway ads lampooning reality shows. The posters promote fake shows including "Bad Bad Bag Boys" and "Knitting Wars," alongside the slogan: "The fact you thought this was a real show says a lot about the state of TV."

Bouzaglo, who has repeatedly ignored requests for comment, was expected to discuss her proposed reality show on the television newsmagazine "Inside Edition" late Tuesday. She and her husband, Samy Bouzaglo, said they went on the show to disprove bad online reviews of their business, Amy's Baking Co., in Scottsdale, Ariz. But their story went viral after host and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay ended up walking away when they grew incensed over his constructive criticism.

It's not hard to imagine the foul-mouthed, defensive couple launching a TV series and creating a line of, say, Amy's Angry Kitchen products if only because so many others have already blazed that path.

On Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," Teresa Giudice launched a line of cookbooks and hair products after flipping over a table at a dinner party. Beauty pageant participant Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson became a household name after the TLC network created a show capitalizing on her family's redneck stereotypes.

On MTV, the nastiest "Real World" contestants are often the ones invited back each year for an athletic competition show that can sometimes feel like the cast is reliving their cruelest high school memories.

"People who yell and scream sell because they attract the eyeballs and the eyeballs attract the advertisers," said June Deery, a communications professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and the author of "Consuming Reality: The Commercialization of Factual Entertainment."

TV networks are drawn to the shows because they are relatively inexpensive to produce.

"If it doesn't work, you cancel it after three shows. You haven't lost that much money," said James Wiltz, a licensed psychologist in Indiana who has studied reality TV viewership. "But if you get 10 million viewers, you are making a lot of money and you don't have to pay anybody for it."

But what do viewers get out of it? Why do they love to watch these people misbehave?

For one thing, anything taboo always has a certain seductive quality, said Jim Taylor, a University of San Francisco professor who has studied reality television.

"Our inner baby wants to have a tantrum or go off on somebody else because they hurt our feelings, but typically in our society that type of behavior is not rewarded," he said.

For others, the shows are aspirational.

"People fantasize about fame and fortune," Wiltz said. "It's interesting to see someone else who is just sort of a regular person become famous."

That doesn't mean reality TV is a positive distraction. A growing body of research suggests watching people act like jerks on TV inspires others to be less kind or sympathetic. Call it the Kardashian effect. If TV consistently portrays people as selfish and uncouth, it basically sends the message that such behavior is acceptable and lucrative.

"Reality TV normalizes narcissism," said Audrey Longson, a New Jersey psychiatrist who recently presented research at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting linking bad behavior and reality TV viewership. "It's alarming."

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