When I first heard about the concept for “Famous in 12” (debut I thought this had to be the weirdest idea for a reality TV show ever. As odd as it is, the idea is simple: a regular family is chosen from thousands of applicants to be thrust into the reality TV spotlight with the machine that is TMZ behind them to generate buzz. The family has just 12 weeks to make a dent in the national consciousness. In a sense, it's the Loud family for the 21st century, if that first family of reality TV had known exactly what it faced — which is now complicated by the instant feedback of the Internet and social media.
I had the chance to talk to producer David Garfinkle about this attempt to test the true power of TMZ on the CW and sneak in a question about his other show — “Naked and Afraid.”
Where did this idea come from, anyway?
I think the idea was that fame has become such an interesting and different thing in our country, we thought it was interesting to shine a light on a family for 12 weeks to see if they become famous, and we're using TMZ to shine that light. So moving this family of unknowns from a small town into Hollywood.
The promos for the show mention two people who became famous for “no reason” — but the two people are Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, and they both became TMZ fodder for their sex tapes. Will creating a sex tape be part of the conversation?
It's not part of our conversation. What's interesting us is that people become famous for so many reasons. Some became famous for something like a sex tape, or they became famous because they're President of the United States, or they became famous for shooting a winning basket. Fame is being defined in such a different way because of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook and Vine and Instagram. What we're saying is, we're being totally transparent to the CW audience, the TMZ audience, and even we don't know what's going to happen We're decided we're going to throw out a really wide net, and 10,000 people applied to be on this show, and then we're going to give them access.
How are you giving them that access?
They'll go places where TMZ's people are there, where celebrities go, from restaurants to clubs. They'll be doing videos with all kinds of media outlets, things no normal person gets to do.
Did you try to find a family with certain skills or talents? Did you look for singers or musicians?
No, we just wanted them to be interesting. As Harvey [Levin] said, even if you took Beyonce and Rihanna, they couldn't make it in Hollywood in 12 weeks. So we had to ask, is the family interesting enough people would want to talk about them? People love and hate a lot of things about the Kardashians, but they're very polarizing one way or the other. So, the question was, do they have enough entertainment value?
How would you describe the family?
I think these people are really, really smart, well-educated, really funny, a really loving family; they're good looking and at the same time, they have family issues like all of us do. I think they're going to be really entertaining to watch. And they're shameless in a certain way.
How difficult was it to decide on just one family from those 10,000 applications?
It was really was the needle in the haystack, because they needed so many things to meet the criteria, including the right ages, they had to be attractive, smart and funny, again, a loving family but one that still had its issues.
And how long did it take to decide?
From when we started, almost a year. When they started out, we had a casting department, and we whittled it down.
You're dunking them in the deep end, so have you given them any media training, any pointers at all?
No. We purposely did not do that. What we're trying to do, we're pulling back the curtain. We're being totally transparent with the audience with every part of this show. We wanted to be raw and real and not do it in a way, like media training. We don't want that. It is a real social experiment. We wanted to see what would happen if you take this small town family and bring them to Hollywood. What would really happen? We'll shoot it all summer, edit as we go, post it on TMZ, and every week, we think that is what makes it different and unique. It's not polished. And it will. We will let America decide.
What would you consider a success? Ratings alone, or Twitter followers, or what?
I think ratings, whether the show makes it or not. If the show does well, people will want to watch them again. That will determine the next step. Harvey's social media team will be monitoring their social media in a very scientific way, so he'll be able to see how they're doing and whether people are interested in this. It always comes down to ratings.
What happens if they do become famous in 12 weeks? Another season with this family, or a new family?
I think that, right now I'm just worried about getting the first show on the air. We hope people will find the family really entertaining and want to watch it. America will decide what will happen. If they go home, they go home. If they take off, I'm sure the network will want to do another cycle.
So, “Naked and Afraid” and “Famous in 12.” You seem to be a fan of social experiments, I guess?
As a producer, you always try to figure out what would captivate an audience. You hit it, that this is also a social experiment. “Naked and Afraid” is Adam and Eve; it's a man and a woman surviving in very difficult situations together. It's really fascinating to see it unfold. This is also a social experiment, and not about a man and a woman but about fame. I find the fascination with fame really interesting. We've always been fascinated with fame, with Marilyn Monroe and all through the years, but technology changed the definition. It's 80, 90 million unique visitors a month. We'll see what will happen. I find that really fascinating. That's why I'm excited about the show. I do think it's different and hasn't been done before.
Okay, so how do you view fame?
I'm a little cynical, but I have a realistic look. But it's really more about how the culture views it, not about how I define it. I would never want to be famous or want my children to be famous, but our society and everyone on this planet has wondered what it would be like to walk through the world being famous. I do think this show is going to shine a light on that this summer, and it's going to be really interesting to see. I've been doing this long enough to know I can't figure out what makes things work, though.
So talk about Harvey Levin's involvement with this.
This idea could not be done without Harvey. He's such an incredible mind, and he's so interesting and thinks so outside of the box, plus he's an incredible entrepreneur in his own right, I thought this concept with his company would be a really interesting pairing.
And he'll be on the show itself?
Harvey will be on screen. He's going to be guiding the family and also telling them when they're doing things right or wrong. His sensibility is very honest, but he doesn't take himself seriously and neither does TMZ. We're not trying to cure cancer here.
Let's go back to “Naked and Afraid.” People have gotten injured, and awful things have happened to them. How much further can you take it? Is there anything you can do to make it even edgier?
If you can figure that out, please call me right away. We can pitch that together. I'll make you a partner.
Will you give “Famous in 12” a spin? Would you sign up to be famous in twelve weeks?