How A&E Got Rich Off of Recovery

By Joe Lynch 03/25/11

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? 

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Intervention is the cornerstone of the new A&E. Rachel (pre-intervention) from
Season 9.
Photo: ©2011, A&E Television Networks

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.

Some of the people starring in episodes since then have even become familiar characters (as it were) in the pop culture landscape. Season two’s Cristy—a meth addict who liked stickers on her face but did not like wearing clothes -- was one of the show’s first subjects to become an object of internet infamy. And chances are good you’ve seen Allison from season five, or at least the YouTube mash-up video where she described her passion for huffing up to a dozen computer duster cans a day.  (“It’s like I’m walking on sunshine” she replied when an A&E interviewer delicately asked her to explain her strange habit.) The next day, her appearance was immediately posted on you tube, where her computer sniffing was accompanied by the soundtrack of the Katrina and the Waves tune of the same name.

But the most famous Intervention subject is probably Rocky, a professional boxer from season eight whose 38-second “Best Cry Ever” YouTube video has received an astounding 16 million views. If that’s not enough, a hip-hop remix of the song has a separate view count of one million, and it was even lampooned on Saturday Night Live in a sketch with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.

Although many of the people commenting on the “Walking on Sunshine Intervention Style” video describe themselves as Allison’s “fans” and “supporters,” there’s clearly more at play here than well-wishes and sympathy—flabbergasted fixation and detached mockery also have a lot to do with the public’s fixation on Intervention.

But that doesn’t seem to have hindered the network’s ability to recruit new people and afflictions to document. In spite of the increasingly high-profile spoofs (Allison’s “Walking on Sunshine” was actually referenced on South Park), it is still much easier for the producers to find willing subjects these days. “Now we get about 1,000 submissions a week from people looking to participate,” says Intervention executive producer Dan Partland. Typically, solicitations come from the family of the afflicted, and the show begins filming the addict under the guise that they are merely there to document the disease. Then when the family is ready, the intervention is revealed and, ideally, treatment begins.

You might think that given the show’s popularity, it would become nearly impossible to find addicts who truly believe they’re only being filmed for a documentary, and Partland says the producers were initially concerned that the “exposure the show has received would ultimately be its undoing.”  But somehow this hasn’t been too much of a problem for the producers—something Partland attributes to the fact that “a lot of addicts are way too caught up in their disease to be keeping tabs on pop culture."

That’s not to say addicts don’t occasionally see through the production crew’s subterfuge. When someone does correctly guess they’re being filmed not for investigative purposes but for Intervention, one of two things happens: either they agree to treatment, thereby proving that they don’t need a forced intervention, or they decline to participate. In the case of the former, the show encourages them to find help but ceases to film, because as Partland puts in, “we can’t film a bogus intervention.”

When the latter occurs, however, and the addict retreats from the camera crew, the show continues to film the family in hopes that they will still manage to bring about an intervention for the addict who has essentially just confirmed that they need one.

Despite difficulties like these, 10 seasons of experience has helped the show's producers streamline the casting process. “We have a very long list of different elements we try to find in a story,” Partland says. “The most important one is, will the story in some way challenge the stereotype of what addiction is? The next is that the addict and their families have to be completely willing to share their story. You have to choose people who are comfortable with showing you all aspects of their life.”

Since most -- though not all -- episodes end with a fairy-tale like recovery, some question why Intervention ’has been so successful when it comes to treatment (the show claims a 75% recovery rate while most respected treatment clinics are lucky to claim a long-term recovery rate of 15%. ) Considering every filmed intervention that’s gone to air, one might think the crew behind this show is either incredibly lucky or especially perceptive when it comes to picking the “right” addict for a good story. But exec producer Partland is the first to deny that the people behind the show have a magical Midas touch. In fact, according to him, the interventionists featured on A&E perform “the very same interventions in their private practice and have similar rates of getting people in, but they certainly don’t have as much success with the long-term sobriety of their clients.”

So why do the people on Intervention stay sober when those not filmed for the show have a much more difficult time? As with any documentary, the process of filming a person changes their behavior—and for this show, that change seems to be for the better.

While filming the pre-intervention drug abuse footage, the cameras capture the addict opening up about their addiction. So when the time comes for the intervention with their family, it’s much harder for the user to lie and obscure the truth, because the reality of their situation is already committed to video. “It makes it harder for them to sing the same old song,” says Partland. “It’s hard for them to say it’s not really a problem, that they have it under control, because they know it’s all on tape. They’ve said it.”

But perhaps the most effective way Intervention helps to keep its subjects sober is the way it raises their public profile. “Every single addict on the show has had the experience of getting out of treatment and having someone come up to them and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re that guy from the show. Thank you so much for sharing your story, it made me realize I needed to get treatment’ or ‘It made me realize my mother needed treatment,’” Partland says. “The addict who has been featured on the show probably has a greater success rate than a control group person, because by raising their public profile, they feel a greater responsibility to stay clean.”

For instance, Partland shared a story of a graduate of the show who had just relapsed and was on his way to shoot up in the bathroom after procuring some heroin in an airport (nice work, TSA). But another former addict recognized the man and stopped him to in order to thank him for sharing his story on TV. As Partland tells the story, when the man “passed the bag of heroin from his right to his left just to shake hands, he realized, ‘Oh my god, this is where I’m at again, I have to get myself back into treatment.’”

Those long-term sobriety rates have also buoyed rehab clinics that participate on the show. Although the treatment centers provide “scholarships” for those featured on a given episode, the facilities certainly benefit from having their services featured on a TV show that boasts such a high profile and success rate. As for the families, they don’t have to pay the interventionist or the treatment center.

Aside from offering free interventions and treatment, Partland also sees the show as an opportunity for an addict’s family to “liberate themselves from the fear that they haven’t done enough or tried enough. It is their chance to lay all their fears on the table and give the addict full responsibility for their own life.”

The addicts themselves initially participate without compensation simply because they have a story to share: many of them feel misunderstood by society and a media that is more likely to portray them as the offender in an episode of CSI than your next-door-neighbor.

As odd as the addict must feel sharing the desperate details of their lives before a camera, crewmembers also have a hard time watching people destroying their lives without stepping in. Partland admits that Intervention staffers occasionally “intercede to keep someone from imminent danger,” but overall, the behind-the-scenes ethic is to “not conduct the intervention before the intervention since the surprise element is viewed to be a therapeutic, key part of the success.”

The success of the intervention isn’t the only reason the crew is asked to maintain a distance; their psychological wellbeing is part of the equation, too. “It’s a tough line to walk,” Partland concedes. “Our crews are trained to find a healthy balance of being present and compassionate while still holding reasonable boundaries so that they don’t become emotionally involved in a story.” And that’s not just for their benefit—a crewmember too invested in the episode’s subject can put the whole delicate intervention at risk.

On the other hand, there are certainly times where the camera crew find themselves in situations they’d rather avoid—like witnessing legally suspect activities and those things that are health hazards to the addict. But even then, Partland says, “We often feel glad to be present, because at least some responsible people who care about this individual are keeping an eye on them. For the most part, we feel pretty bonded with the families and the addicts and don’t feel any more uncomfortable being present than any friend or family member would feel.”

The first episode of Relapse (which will debut in April) seems to testify to this. There’s a point where David is threatening to go back on crack unless his wife brings him some marijuana. While waiting for help to arrive, David turns to the cameraman and says, “You’re lucky I like you,” as if to imply he otherwise wouldn’t allow his struggle to be filmed. For his part, the cameraman remains mute in spite of being just a few feet away from David.

Although sympathy is clearly the go-to emotional response for episodes revolving around drug and alcohol addiction, some viewers and professional critics have been less empathetic when it comes to the network’s showcasing of more esoteric addictions. When Hoarders debuted in 2009, for instance, Television Without Pity’s Mindy Monez said Hoarders was “voyeuristic and uncomfortable to watch, but like Intervention and Obsessed before it, I continue to watch and enjoy for shameful reasons I’d rather not admit.” Entertainment Weekly’s Josh Wolk, on the other hand, felt that “these A&E shows never slip into sensationalism,” and that Hoarders gave us “stark portrayals of fractured lives.” But like TwoP, he agreed that Hoarders is also about “making [its] audience feel comparatively good about their lives.”

Regardless of their motivations, cable viewers continue to make Hoarders one of the network’s most-watched series. And that, of course, means advertisers are increasingly willing to develop a relationship with the network. “In the case of Hoarders, we’ve been approached by a lot of cleaning products,” says Sharenow of the unique advertising potential offered by a show that focuses on disgustingly cluttered homes. “Similarly with Heavy, advertisers have seen great opportunities with healthy food products. That’s a real upside.”

But even if the ad revenue for a show like Heavy was all but guaranteed, the “casting,” as it were, is another matter entirely. Troy Searer, an executive producer for Heavy, explains that he and fellow producers were faced with far more willing participants than the show could possibly take on.

“You want to help everyone, because everyone who comes and asks for help obviously needs it,” says Searer. But with production spanning from Texas to South Carolina and involving two separate companies, there were plenty of desperately overweight people the show couldn’t take on. “We had to recommend other sources to them if they didn’t make the show—people or clinics in their particular area where they could find help,” he says.

The imposing logistics aside, there was the additional struggle to find relatable story lines for this weight-based affliction series. “We have to look at each case from a television standpoint as well,” Searer explains. “What person really has something on the line? Is their weight the primary reason they’re not accomplishing it? A lot of the people on this show have so much at stake. They’ve lost jobs, they’ve lost loved ones and their health is at risk. We’re looking at people with a life expectancy that is far, far less than most people.”

Each episode of Heavy sends two people to a month-long weight-loss retreat where they are put on a controlled diet and forced into an exhausting daily workout regimen. Yet, as anyone familiar with addiction treatment knows, the real struggle begins once the person leaves the controlled environment. In several cases, Heavy hasn’t shied away from showing participants that have regained weight after returning to their everyday lifestyle.

Unlike Intervention, which allows viewers to witness the transformation of addicts from sickness to health, A&E’s upcoming Relapse will tend to document the failures. Partland, who’s an executive producer on that show as well, says one of the catalysts for creating it was the increasing number of viewers contacting A&E to request more in-depth follow-ups to various stories.

“Sooner or later, anyone who regularly watches Intervention will ask for more information about a person they’ve followed,” says Partland. “But when we try to do longer follow-up material, it’s very complicated because a lot of the initial drama is gone, especially in terms of success. You can send people to 90 days at a top-flight treatment center, have the benefits of therapy and education and state-of-the-art everything, and still have them return to their community and they’re back to using drugs a few days later.”

While researching various methods of post-rehab aftercare, Partland and his fellow producers knew they had finally found a dramatic way to tell the after-the-treatment story when they learned about the burgeoning phenomenon of sober coaching.  “What a sober coach brings is gritty, hands-on experience,” Partland explains. “The requirement of the sober coach is that they not be a therapist or a professional counselor: the requirement is that they be a former addict who has learned how to live in recovery.”

Although most sober coaches, who typically charge between $500-$1000 for round-the-clock supervision, are usually employed by the rich and famous, Relapse ropes in visiting sober coaches to live with average Americans who haven’t benefited from traditional treatment methods. Ideally, at the end of their first week together, the coach has managed to set the addict back on the right path as well as connect him with a support group in his vicinity. In reality, things don’t usually work out so neatly.

Sharenow acknowledges that many of those who agree to appear on the show have little have faith in the show’s treatment. “One of the interesting aspects of working on these programs is that generally the addicts want their story told as a cautionary tale,” Sharenow says. “They don’t necessarily believe they will get better as a result of this process. They know they’re trapped in a very bad place. What we get from a lot of them is ‘I want people to learn from my example and see how terrible addiction is.’ That’s a big part of why they do it. I don’t think that everyone who comes on these shows thinks they will be cured per se.”

As for how the troubling content affects the production crew in the long-run, Partland makes sure to say that in spite of what most people assume, the burnout rate for the men and women behind these A&E programs is actually quite low. 

“This is a very emotionally challenging job. People who are drawn to work here are well-aware that the job will be demanding in this way.” That might be a bit of an understatement—plenty of jobs are demanding, but few TV productions crews have to deal with the possibility that the person they’re filming could die in the immediate future.

“We train our staff to expect tragedies and instruct them to create healthy boundaries,” Partland explains. “We warn our staff when we see them crossing over from compassion into co-dependence, a point where their emotional well-being is becoming too dependent on the well-being of the person on the other side of the camera.”

Professional counseling is always available for those on staff, and not just for their own benefit: part of the difficulty of putting a production crew together for a show like Intervention or Relapse involves making sure the people you bring into an addict’s life aren’t going to make it worse. “It’s critically important when working with emotionally fragile people and situations that the people we send into those situations are strong, healthy and not bringing their own emotional issues into an already precarious situation,” says Partland.

Since Intervention debuted in 2005, three of the show’s subjects -- season four’s Lawrence, season six’s Chris and season seven’s Bret—have died due to addiction-related circumstances. All were originally on the show to treat their alcoholism.

“I personally was very shaken up when Lawrence died,” Partland admits of the first Intervention participant to pass on. “But even at the time, my overwhelming feeling was one of shock that out of the 120-plus interventions we had done up to that point, we hadn’t seen an addict die before. Actually, I was shocked because we here at Intervention know full-well how deadly this disease is and how close to death our subjects are.”

Despite the show’s unexpected success, Partland himself has mixed feelings about it. Though he tries to distance himself emotionally from the lives of his subjects, he’s not always successful. In the end, he justifies his work by thinking of the enlightenment it can provide about a disease that is usually stuck in the shadows of American culture. “Emotionally, it’s a really intense experience working on Intervention: it’s taxing, but it’s very rewarding. Sometimes it’s too dark, but at the end it’s hopeful and uplifting work. That’s the nature of this disease. And the show itself is a miniature version of that experience.”

Joe Lynch grew up in Saint Paul, MN, and is now yet another writer living in Brooklyn. You can find his writing in Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo TV and New York Magazine's Vulture.

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