How A&E Got Rich Off of Recovery
Thanks to a raft of reality shows like Intervention and Hoarders, A&E morphed from a sleepy arts channel into one of the most innovative cable networks. But at what point does empathy turn into exploitation?
Television shows about addiction and recovery are so commonplace today that it’s almost impossible to remember a time when cable wasn’t populated with real-life stories about people abusing drugs, overeating, swallowing Kleenex, and hoarding. Of course, this isn’t a practice solely limited to dramatic television: The Office crew forced an intervention on Meredith in the middle of a Christmas party, and the talking towel on South Park even faced the music for his drug addiction. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to name a drama, sitcom or sketch comedy show that hasn’t had a “we’re here to confront you about your problem” denouement.
Before A&E began airing the hour-long docu-drama Intervention in March of 2005, the practice of intervening on someone suffering from an addiction was familiar only to people who’d been down in the trenches – or were dealing with someone there. But suddenly, every Monday night, viewers were privy to addicts shooting up, guzzling gallons of vodka and discovering, three-quarters of the way through each episode, that they weren’t merely being filmed for a series about addiction but because their teary families wanted to ship them off to rehab. (While the series occasionally focuses on gambling, shopping and food addicts, drug and alcohol abusers get the majority of the airtime.)
The result? Viewers were transfixed. Ratings were unlike anything the network had seen before and hallmarks of the show quickly becoming an everyday part of pop culture. The names of the most popular of the show’s interventionists, like Candy Finnigan (an alcoholic in recovery), Ken Seeley (a meth addict in recovery) and Jeff VanVonderen (a former pastor and recovering alcoholic), began to pop up in casual conversations. The “Five Steps” song that plays over the end credits gave the Brooklyn group the Davenports an audience. Intervention has consistently been among the network's five highest-rated series since its debut and won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program in 2009.
“Intervention was a critical turning point for us,” says A&E’s Vice President of Non-Fiction Programming Rob Sharenow. “It signaled a big change in the network's entire approach to programming.” Four years after the show debuted, the network launched the anxiety disorder-centric docu-drama Obsessed, which was followed, three months later, by Hoarders. Although 2009 also saw the cancellation of The Cleaner, a scripted drama that starred Benjamin Bratt as an ex-addict helping others defeat their habits, by its third season, Hoarders delivered the highest ratings for a season premiere in A&E’s three-decade history. And Heavy, a show about the travails of the morbidly obese, made its debut this January to, well, heavy ratings. Another reality series that the network has given the characteristically no-frills title Relapse will debut this April.
A decade ago, none of the network's executives expected the sleepy network to veer in this direction. For most of the ’80s and ’90s A&E (which once stood for Arts and Entertainment, after all) specialized in high-toned and unimpressively rated cultural fare like Breakfast with the Arts, BBC imports and PBS-styled documentaries.
But then GRB Productions, which at the time was producing the short-lived mob-daughter reality series Growing Up Gotti for A&E, arrived with a curious pitch about out-of-control alcoholics. Desperate to boost their ratings, network honchos decided to greenlight the show. Although it was a departure from their usual programming, Sharenow says that the show made sense from a storytelling perspective. “Interventions are quite dramatic,” he says. “They come with a built-in climax, which makes for powerful TV.”
He nevertheless acknowledges that the network never expected the show to make such waves. “It’s become a touchstone for community outreach recovery projects, and that took me by surprise because I’ve never worked on a show that had a life outside the show,” he says. “It touches people in a way that I never expected.”
While a reality show about drug interventions might have seemed like a surefire winner to programmers, it was a much harder sell for potential advertisers. With brands wary of attaching their products to such a gritty show, A&E was initially forced to air the show with limited commercial support.
“The network basically told us, ‘At this point, it’s not going to be a moneymaker, but we believe in this show,’” recalls Sharenow. “And it certainly has paid off.” Unsurprisingly, once the show began attracting record viewers for the network, advertisers became much more comfortable associating with the show and its darker subject matter. These days, it’s common to see a Subway or Mitsubishi or Dell computers ad mixed in between the recovery center ones.
A&E’s formula has proven to so successful that it’s been copied by other networks, from TLC’s new show on bizarre anxiety disorders (My Strange Addiction) to its brazen copycat show Hoarding: Buried Alive. Even celebrities are cashing in on the trend. Roughly three years after Intervention debuted, VH1 came out with its own addiction show, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
In spite of imitators, A&E continues to benefit hugely from the recent public interest in affliction television. Thanks to shows like Hoarders and Intervention, it’s now the fourth most-watched entertainment cable network among advertising’s coveted 18-49 demographic (although “entertainment” seems like an odd word to describe a network that features several different heroin addictions a month).
As for Intervention, even as it enters its 10th season, the show remains the grand dame of recovery programs, drawing consistently high ratings and praise for its dramatic storytelling -- not to mention a shocking success rate of its participants. According to A&E, 146 of the 184 people from Intervention are still sober today.
The producers certainly didn’t have these laurels to tout when they began filming the first season in 2004. With no finished product to show potential participants, it was difficult for them to convince struggling addicts that if they shared painful and often embarrassing details of their lives on camera, the network wasn’t simply going to exploit them.
In spite of that challenge, Intervention managed to snag two compelling “fall from grace” stories for its first episode, including a former White House intern addicted to crack and a cocaine addict whose habit cost him his job as a stockbroker. In keeping with these high-profile addiction tales, an early episode also focused on the shopping addiction of an actress who had been a recurring character on ER.