Celeb biopics prove truth doesn't hurt cable
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From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Television tell-alls are cloning rapidly on cable, offering views a glimpse into true tales of the rich and famous.
And truth sells, as it turns out.
The audience for A&E's "Biography" is up 30 percent. Ratings for VH1 double when "Behind the Music" airs. The stories behind the famous names are bringing in viewers with gut-wrenching tales of success and excess.
"A little murder -- Mafia is always good," says A.J. Benza, a former New York Daily News gossip columnist, now host of "Mysteries & Scandals" on the E! entertainment network. "And it's always good if you hint that someone was bisexual or maybe a communist at some point."
Celebrity biographies like the ones on these networks have proven so popular that they have spread to other cable channels -- MTV, Lifetime, even The Nashville Network.
"We spend, on average, a couple of hundred thousand dollars an episode, which is a fraction of what the networks spend on dramas," says Jeff Gaspin, VH1's top programming executive. "We sort of look at these documentaries as cable's version of the drama."
The stars don't have to be hot. Even careers as cold as Leif Garrett's can be made into one-hour hits. Nearly all biographies are authorized, and stars cooperate extensively with producers. They offer home movies, baby pictures, and interviews with friends and family.
Actress and award-winning director Lee Grant, who has produced many of Lifetime's "Intimate Portrait" segments, said each can take months to complete. Some interview sessions with the stars last up to 10 hours.
"You get down so deep in those kind of hours, and people break down after a couple of hours," Grant says. "All the defenses go down, and there's a kind of communication that if I spent 20 years in a living room with one of these people, I would never, never know as much about them as I do in that one day."
So far, there is no shortage of subjects. In its 11th season, "Biography" has expanded to include home videos, a Web site, a monthly magazine and an all-bio digital channel.
"I figured that first year would be swell. We'd do Roosevelt and Churchill, a couple of things like that, and that would be it," said actor Peter Graves, longtime "Biography" host.
That's not likely, Benza said.
"In this society, the public is hell-bent on knowing everything about everyone famous. It will never stop."
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