Upfront Friday 2012: A Healthy Dose of Reality Keeps Viewers Coming Back

We’re back for the third installment in our look at the new shows coming to cable through this year and into next year, and this week we explore what’s hot in the reality, or unscripted, world.

Sometimes I hear reality TV described as a new phenomenon, but, really, unscripted television has been a staple of TV since…well, before it was even TV. Candid Camera, for example, was actually a radio show, Candid Microphone, back in the 1940s. Millions of teens raced home from school in the 1950s to watch American Bandstand. PBS aired the groundbreaking An American Family in the 1970s. COPS began in the late 1980s, and even MTV’s Real World is now 20 years old(!).

With that history in mind, it’s no surprise that shows that capture a slice of life—sometimes a celebrity’s life, sometimes not—remain so popular with viewers. Cable networks have done this particularly well, and some of the best-known reality shows in recent memory come from E!. Among the new shows coming to the pop culture network is Opening Act, debuting in June, which features unknown musical acts getting the chance to open concerts for established stars.

Also coming to E! is Married to Jonas, a celebrity reality series following singer Kevin Jonas and his wife, hairdresser Danielle Deleasa and Love You, Mean it With Whitney Cummings, a weekly talk and comedy show. Love You will be teamed up with The Soup on Wednesday nights, forming a powerful comedy block that pokes fun at all aspects of pop culture. E! has also announced that the (current) first family of celebrity reality TV, the Kardashian clan, will remain with the network for three more years.

E!’s sister network, Style, is packing some star power of its own, including fashion designer Betsey Johnson and her daughter headlining a new documentary series, Betsey + Lulu. The Bill half of Giuliana & Bill is headlining his own show, Ultimate Home With Bill Rancic, a home makeover series.

Aspiring stars are at the center of Empire Girls: Julissa & Adrienne, following two friends hoping to make it big on New York’s entertainment scene (if they can make it there, they’ll make it anywhere, right?), while what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay there in Party Fabulous Vegas, about a Las Vegas event-planning businesses. Returning to Style will be new seasons of Tia & Tamera and Glam Fairy.

Home to the ever-popular Top Chef, Bravo has a number of new unscripted shows coming out, including Life After Top Chef, revisiting, as the name suggests, former contestants to see what’s happening in their lives today. Also setting sail on the network will be Below Deck, chronicling the lives of the young and single crew of a luxurious yacht (suddenly I have The Love Boat theme in my head).

Different stages of relationships will be part of two more Bravo series: Miss Advised, about three relationship experts who find themselves struggling in the dating pool; and Newlyweds: The First Year, about married couples in their first year of wedded bliss (we hope).

Bravo is also branching out into some new areas. They’ve focused on five so-called pillars of programming so far: food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture. This year, they’ve added a new pillar, “digital.” The first two shows that will be part of the new pillar are Silicon Valley, featuring Randi Zuckerberg, older sister of Facebook founder Mark and a powerful force in the tech world in her own right, and Huh?, taking an inside look at the workings of icanhascheezburger.com. That name doesn’t ring a bell? If you’re on Facebook, I can just about guarantee some of your friends are posting pictures from icanhascheezburger—they’re the photos of animals in funny poses with comic captions.

Familiar favorites returning to Bravo include Inside the Actors Studio, Flipping Out, Tabatha Takes Over, Million Dollar Decorators, Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles, Chef Roblé & Co.,Top Chef Masters and Pregnant in Heels.

Oxygen is taking a bi-coastal approach to its new programming, introducing New York and Los Angeles versions of Girlfriend Confidential, about successful best friends in each city. Choreographer Travis Wall is featured in All the Right Moves, as he and his roommates form their own dance company. My Shopping Addiction tells the stories of people whose obsessions with spending leads them into some dire financial straits, while I’m Having Their Baby follows expectant mothers grappling with the decision of possibly giving their babies up for adoption.

Coming back to Oxygen is a new season of The Glee Project, offering the winner a role in the hit series, and The Next Big Thing: New York.          

Shifting gears a bit, Discovery has four new series coming up, including Top Engineer, a competition featuring some of the sharpest minds in the country doing battle to solve challenges. Mark Burnett’s Alaska tells the fascinating stories of the people, places and rich history of our 49th state. Car buffs may enjoy One Car Too Far, featuring a car aficionado trying to get his compact car out of difficult situations, and Fast and Loud about another car fan looking for classic autos to restore.

Discovery is also known for its specials, and the new season includes several that sound fascinating: The Gatekeepers looks at the often challenging job of White House Chief of Staff, while All the President’s Men Revisited explores the Watergate scandal. Also, rest easy, shark fans: Shark Week will be back this summer for another bite.

Returning Discovery series include Gold Rush, Bering Sea Gold, Deadliest Catch, Flying Wild Alaska, American Chopper, Dirty Jobs, Moonshiners, Alaska: The Final Frontier, Mythbusters, Auction Kings and Dual Survival.

Animal Planet is getting into the “Top” competition game with a fishing competition series, Top Hooker, pitting teams of expert fishers in head-to-head (or is that fin-to-fin?) battle. The aquatic theme continues with the new Fish America, following wrestler Eric Young around the country to visit with other fishermen.

A six-part series, Frontier Earth With David Salmoni follows the wildlife expert as he finds tells the stories of some very unique animals. Glory Hounds explores the relationship between man and dog, while Treehouse Men goes up in the air as workers build the ever-popular structures.

Much like its sister network, Discovery, Animal Planet will hold its annual Monster Week once again, with episodes of shows like Finding Bigfoot, River Monsters and Call of the Wildman alongside new specials. And if your tastes run more cute than scary, Puppy Bowl will be back on the next Super Bowl Sunday. Those specials will be joined by returning series Hillbilly Handfishin’, Pit Boss, Tanked, Too Cute, Pit Bulls and Parolees and Whale Wars.

OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network also is introducing several new reality shows, including Married to the Army: Alaska (I see a big Alaska theme) about military wives in the state; Iyanla Fix My Life, with Iyanla Vanzant helping people address their problems; Elura and Michele Take Staten Island, following two former prosecutors who became housewives and now help people with problems (another theme); and Six Little McGhees, about the parents of sextuplet toddlers. The network is also bringing back Oprah’s Master Class and Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.

A network you might not think of when it comes to reality is jumping into the game, so to speak, as GSN, sometimes still referred to as Game Show Network by fans, is introducing Pure Gold, about a gold-buying business. The Family Trade follows a family-run auto business in Vermont that uses a barter system, while I Do, Now I Don’t is about a New York business that buys and sells used engagement rings. Perhaps the funniest sounding new entry on GSN is Crowning Glory, about some of the lesser-known pageants in America, like Miss Klingon Empire and Zombie Pin-Up.

National Geographic has introducing a series version of Brian Games, a special that aired in 2011 using experiments to show how our minds can do remarkable things, and sometimes play tricks on us. Also coming up is American Chainsaw, showing how Jesse Green creates remarkable works of art using his power tool; Bid & Destroy, about a New England demolition company; and Jersey Combat, following the owner of a New Jersey military artifacts shop.

Specials will also be a big part of the National Geographic lineup, including Killing Lincoln from Ridley and Tony Scott about the watershed moment in American history; Deepsea Challenge, following James Cameron on his descent to the deepest place on Earth, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean; and The ‘80s: The Decade That Made Us, flashing back to the decade of parachute pants and E.T,, and some of the people and events that changed the course of history.

Returning shows on National Geographic will include Alaska State Troopers, Border Wars, Doomsday Preppers, Hard Time: Locked Up Abroad, Rocket City Rednecks and Taboo.

At TV One, new real-life programs include Unresolved: Celebrity Cases, exploring the mysteries around the deaths of famous people, like Sam Cooke, Allaiyah and Jam Master Jay. Save my Son features author and TV personality Dr. Steve Perry telling the stories of families whose sons have made bad decisions in their lives, and The Ladies of R&B follows the daily lives of singers like Faith Evans and Nicci Gilbert.

ABC Family is also getting into the reality mix with Beverly Hills Nannies. Debuting in July, the series, from the producers of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills & The Real Housewives of Los Angeles, shows what it’s like to be a nanny in one of the country’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Finally for this week, Syfy has a six-pack of new unscripted shows coming this season, including the creepy-sounding School Spirits, bringing viewers ghost stories from schools around the country. Paranormal Highway travels the United States’ back roads to find tales of odd occurrences, and Ghost Mine heads to Oregon and a gold mine that will be re-opened…but will the spirits who inhabit it like being disturbed?

On a less ghostly note, Collection Intervention is about helping families deal with their collections of memorabilia (just don’t come near my collection of Simpsons merchandise!). Hot Set is a design challenge series featuring Hollywood production designers competing in each episode. Viral Video Countdown is another competition, this time with teams of video creators trying to create that next big web video sensation.

Next week, we’ll conclude our look at new series and returning favorites on cable with a rundown of scripted entertainment, from laugh-out-loud-funny comedies to envelope-pushing dramas. Until then, if you have any questions or comments, just leave us a message in the comments section below, or click on the “Contact Us” link to the right.