Trying to Make the Leap From Reality TV to Reality

Bravo Partners With Talent Agency Pangea to Rep Contestants of 'Next Top' Crowd

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Reality TV has often been a physically hazardous activity for its participants, as former "Brady Bunch" star Christopher Knight proved last month by fracturing his arm while scampering on a human "hamster wheel," giving new meaning to the phrase "reality TV cast."
That dreaded hamster wheel on NBC's 'Celebrity Circus' has proved an apt metaphor for the entire reality-TV-competition business: Run like a feverish rodent before millions, but go nowhere fast.
That dreaded hamster wheel on NBC's 'Celebrity Circus' has proved an apt metaphor for the entire reality-TV-competition business: Run like a feverish rodent before millions, but go nowhere fast. Credit: NBC

But these days, with so many reality contestants and such limited evidence that they can become lasting successes, the greater peril for the stars of these shows is being plunged back into off-camera obscurity before building out a personal brand of any sustainable sort. Indeed, that dreaded hamster wheel on NBC's "Celebrity Circus" has proved an apt metaphor for the entire reality-TV-competition business: Run like a feverish rodent before millions, but go nowhere fast.

Now, networks such as Bravo are realizing that failure to really launch the "next top" chef or stylist or plumber reflects poorly on their franchises. Sponsors are becoming less overt and more selective about their integrations, freeing up these newly minted stars to do more with their newfound fame in the consumer marketplace. And, perhaps most important, a meaningful representation infrastructure is finally developing to help service these new reality TV stars in actual reality.

'No place to go'
"What was increasingly happening was that we were casting people with talent and skill, launching a whole bunch of people's careers, and they had no place to go," said Frances Berwick, exec VP-general manager of Bravo, adding, "For the ones who don't win, they don't know where to go: There's no management company for them, because they don't want to be actors. They want to be designers, stylists, chefs."

Until, of course, last summer, when RDF USA, the American offshoot of the British TV producer RDF Media, launched Pangea, a Los Angeles management company designed to deal with an overabundance of skilled reality stars going unexploited -- commercially, at least.

Bravo reached out to Pangea not out of altruism, as Ms. Berwick said, but because "it was becoming increasingly burdensome for our PR department. They were getting these requests for these people: advertisers; networks who wanted experts on-air; personal appearances, consumer products -- stuff [the contestants] should be making money on, frankly."

Many deals simply fell through the cracks due to lack of staff, and because network publicists are seldom a good replacement for entertainment attorneys or talent managers. "That's why we're partnering with Bravo -- it's a way to capitalize on the show's brand," said Chris Coelen, a former agent at United Talent Agency who is now CEO of RDF USA. "But also from an ad standpoint, we are creating opportunities for [consumer] brands."

Mr. Coelen would know: At United Talent, he helped stars such as Carmen Electra and "Supernanny" Jo Frost navigate such tricky waters.

Publicized, monetized, commoditized
"We came in midstream," said Mr. Coelen of his relationship to Bravo shows such as "Top Chef" and "Shear Genius." So while there may be little to be done for stars that have cooled, such as "Project Runway" season-one winner Jay McCarroll, more recent reality stars can be publicized, monetized and, eventually, commoditized. "It's the star factor, plus the real skill set," said Mr. Coelen regarding how he chooses Pangea's clientele.

Shifting into agent mode, he added: "The guy we've gravitated to the most is this guy Richard Blaise." He doesn't pause long enough if you hope to say you have no idea who that is. "Finished in the top 3 of 'Top Chef' last season. Already owns his own restaurant -- it just got a four-star review in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"But he's also a guy who specializes in molecular gastronomy: He cooks with gadgets, makes popcorn balls with liquid nitrogen. No one uses these devices. He's like the Brookstone chef, the Sharper Image guy of cooking. And the food is amazing," he said.

Mr. Coelen said Mr. Blaise already has attracted the interest of publishers, and is developing other TV opportunities for him, including a TV show tentatively titled "Blaise of Glory," which is equal parts "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and "Emeril Live!"

So too, with another colorful "Top Chef" also-ran, Brian Malarkey, whom Pangea has placed as a spokesman for Clorox's KC Masterpiece and Hidden Valley Ranch brands.

Open field
For now, Mr. Coelen, and his management head, Jessica Weiner, have the field to themselves. "We prefer to work with the hosts of the shows," said Tim Rothwell, exec VP-co-managing director of consumer products and licensing at IMG, the global talent agency and production company. "The qualities that make contestants great characters also usually mean they're too colorful, too controversial to pair with a brand."

Instead, Mr. Rothwell said, IMG focuses on representing reality hosts such as Bravo's "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi and Cesar Millan, the host of National Geographic Channel's hit show "The Dog Whisperer."

Just last week, Mr. Rothwell unveiled a deal he helped orchestrate between Mr. Millan and Petco for a line of "Dog Whisperer"-branded pet merchandise including organic dog food, treats and other products and accessories that will be exclusively available at the 900 Petco stores nationwide.

But, he allowed: "Where there are serious contestants, who have serious skills, I can see where there's a business."
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