Mixing Celebrities With Reality On “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”

Cannes Film Festival

Paul Drinkwater

 Three weeks, ten celebrities, one jungle. “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” has been sweeping the British charts for eight years and just keeps on growing.  On June 1st, the American audience will be treated to their own version of the British sensation.
ABC first exposed the American audiences to this import in the winter of 2003.  Although reality shows such as “Survivor” were experiencing great success, the pubic wasn’t ready for the mix of reality and celebrities, and the show was canceled after two months.   

"Given the fact that the reality genre had matured so much over the last six years, and with shows like ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars’ performing well, it felt like America had accepted celebrities in a reality format,"  explains producer Jayson Dinsmore. "This show has done nothing but grow over the eight seasons it’s been on the air in the UK.  It felt like a missed opportunity.  We thought, of all the shows and all the formats we’ve seen out there, this one deserved a second chance."  

The British version places eight celebrities in a jungle habitat, and the group competes against each other with the goal of raising money for charity.  Dinsmore, NBC’s Sr. VP of Alternative Development, has been part of the network’s team that ‘s established the net’s reality series; including "Deal or No Deal," "Fear Factor," and "Last Comic Standing."  Working with ITV Studios (formerly Granada America), the US wing of the company behind “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” he’s developing a series that’s modified for an American audience. 

"We’ve tweaked the format so that it has more of a competitive nature," said Dinsmore.   "UK audiences tend to view their television shows a little more voyeuristically than we do in the States."  In addition to enhancing the competition, Dinsmore and his team have developed consistent programming points, such as challenges, that regularly occur each night of the week.

"We’ve also strategically placed the show from a scheduling perspective in a way that’s easier to find," said Dinsmore.  "Our show is Monday through Thursday across the board." 

While Dinsmore was taking care of the details that established the show on the programming map, casting director Chuck LeBella was brought in to fill the show with ten celebrities. 

"It’s all about the mix," said LeBella.  "To me it’s about the story.  It’s not necessarily about booking the big celebrities.  A lot of people make fun, saying they’re all D-list celebrities, but if you look at them, I can give you a rhyme and a reason why each one of them was booked; because they each bring something to the party." 

LeBella got his start as a disc jockey in New York.  Before long, he moved into the talk show circuit on television.  He’s cut his teeth on shows such as “Celebrity Millionaire” with Regis Philbin, and “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher.   

"For eight years I booked all the panels on ‘Politically Incorrect.’  So, I was used to finding the right wing politicians, the liberal, the celebrities, a comic to help lighten the mood.  Everything had an agreement on that show," said LeBella.  The booking balance he perfected on "Politically Incorrect" remains the template he uses for other ventures, including “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” 

"Even if it’s just five or six people, you still want a comic element, you want someone who’s likable, you want somebody who’s going to be a jerk.  All these elements just fit in organically, even though it’s not an organic process." 

Since “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” has a cast of ten people, LeBella had to focus on more than just balancing personalities. 

"We usually want to keep the cast half and half, men and women," said LeBella.  "You want to appeal demographically to everybody too.  There has to be something for everyone. " 

As LeBella began to list potential celebrities for the show, he worked closely with Dinsmore to ensure the mix met the production company’s and network’s expectations. 

"I collaborate with the company that hires me," said LeBella.  "Jayson Dinsmore has been very hands-on with the process, which is great for an executive to be.  We sit and brainstorm basically.  We bring people in and after meeting them, say ‘what do you think of this one, what do you think of that one?’ and it’s really a collaborate effort.  I’m the person who goes after the talent and books them, but a discussion usually happens first between Jason Dinsmore and me."   

During the face to face meeting, LeBella is not only looking for what demographic that actor will attract; he’s closely monitoring the actor’s personality and disposition. 

"There are many, especially athletes" said LeBella, "who think ‘Hey, you know, I’d be good on a realty TV show!’ that just don’t have the personality.  And the big celebrities, well, obviously George Clooney is not going to be doing reality TV and he might not be good at it because he’s too guarded.  You know, he’s a big star, and he has a lot of stuff, and he doesn’t want to put it all out there because it’s his image at stake." 

"Janice Dickenson has been on a lot of reality shows, but she always delivers.  You know when she walks into a room what you’re going to get: somebody who’s outrageous, loud, and also bright.  She knows how to make good television.  We booked Spenser and Heidi on the show because they bring something to the show that’s fun and crazy as well as bringing the youth market."  

Although some celebrities are eager to get involved with a program like “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” others need coaxing when it comes to committing to joining the cast. 

"You know, this is my bread and butter.  I would never sell a celebrity on something I didn’t believe in," said LeBella.  "In the case of Sanjaya, he hasn’t done anything since ‘American Idol.’  This is a huge step for him.  I had to convince him that this was a good step, that people will see him in a different light.  And people will; he’s a very likable person.  There’s so much to this guy.  This is a risk that he had to take to do this show.  It’s always the bigger stars who are the easiest to deal with because they are used to being in the spotlight and are a little more secure in themselves.  It’s the people who are trying to make a career out of something, or trying to make sure they aren’t making a mistake, that as a casting director you have to convince them it’s not a mistake, that it will be good for their career." 

Unlike many reality shows that have one or two episodes a week over several months, Dinsmore explains that "I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!" will air four nights a week for three and a half weeks.  

"We felt like the June slot gave us an opportunity to put the show out over three and a half weeks, and turn the show into an event before it even premieres," said Dinsmore.  "Hopefully the audience will see that short commitment is easier to swallow than a 16 week commitment like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or an extended period of weeks like ‘American Idol.’ You’re in, your out, and if you like it, it’s going to be there every night." 

"It’s an interesting situation because it’s three and a half weeks," said LeBella.  "The talent has to commit to those three and a half weeks.  They’ve got to clear their schedules.  It’s not an easy sell when you’re saying ‘ Hey, three and a half weeks in a place that we can’t tell you about.’  It’s a matter of being a good pitch master; of making a strong sales pitch."
Dinsmore has designed the show to be a fun, light-hearted, entertaining comedy series that’s aimed at the broadest audience possible.  As each celebrity begins the competition, they will choose a charity that will receive the donation of their winnings. 

"Each celebrity will pick their favorite charity, and they will compete on behalf of that charity throughout the show," said Dinsmore.  "America will vote for their favorite charity to keep that charity in the competition.  The charity of the eventual winner will receive the lion’s share of the money generated through a toll-free phone vote.  Callers will also have a prompt where they can donate money to a pot which will be divided amongst all the charities." 

LeBella finds the charity element of the show does attract celebrities who otherwise would not participate. 

"That’s one of the best selling points," said LeBella.  "In trying to convince somebody like Sanjaya to take a chance; the charity aspect really helped out.  He knows he can win a certain amount of money for a charity that he really cares about.  It works on game shows too.  I learned that while working for Regis on ‘Celebrity Millionaire.’  I’ll never forget Alfre Woodard, who came off the show with something like $150,000.  She didn’t win, but she was in tears because she said ‘You don’t know what this is going to do for my charity; this is their whole operating budget for a year.’ And that makes you feel really good.  With the charity aspect built into the show, it makes me feel like I’m contributing something."   

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