This year New Jersey has become reality-TV central, with producers shooting a number of shows right here in the Garden State. TV executives view Jersey residents as "loud and proud," ideal cast members to create outrageous programs such as "Jersey Shore."
That controversial MTV reality show, about a group of Italian American youths spending a summer in Seaside Heights, sparked a firestorm for its alleged stereotyping and celebration of "guidos" and "guidettes." Those are terms that some Midwesterners probably had never heard before — and that some Italian Americans would have preferred stayed within the Tri-State area's borders.
But despite its critics "Jersey Shore" has become a pop-culture phenomenon, with its "cast" appearing on programs ranging from Jay Leno to Wendy Williams."Jersey Shore," however, is just one of a series of Jersey-related programs. In December MTV2 debuted "School of Surf," which is about high school teams from Malibu, Calif., and Ocean City competing in Red Bull's Riders Cup.
Earlier this year Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," which centered around Franklin Lakes, was a huge hit.
TLC's reality show "Cake Boss" is filmed in a Hoboken bakery, and the network's "Table for 12" is about a Marlboro family that has two sets of twins and sextuplets. "Table" was recently rescheduled and put in to replace "Jon & Kate Plus 8."
And the latest Garden State reality-series addition is Style Network's "Jerseylicious." Shooting wrapped up in December at the Green Brook beauty salon in Central New Jersey where "Jerseylicious" follows six stylists. The show is scheduled to debut next spring.
It's no accident that reality-TV producers are venturing from their glitzy Manhattan and Hollywood offices to shoot the much-maligned bridge-and-tunnel crowd in Jersey. Some TV producers seem to think that many New Jersey residents are as mouthy as the mob crew of HBO's fictional "The Sopranos," which was shot in the Garden State.
"People from Jersey are always touting that they're from New Jersey," said Robert Galinsky, founder and principle of the New York Reality TV School in Manhattan. "The nature of being from New Jersey is to always be loud and proud about it. And when you're loud and proud, those are qualities that casting directors like. Loud and proud is good for reality television."
But there are a bushel full of reasons why TV producers are flocking to New Jersey, according to TV experts and executives.
First, pragmatically speaking, New Jersey is convenient and easy for New York City film crews to get to, even if they have to get there via those dreaded bridges and tunnels.
"Crews don't have to go to Canton, Ohio," Galinksy said.
Secondly, there are hundreds of TV networks today, niche channels, and they need programming. They can fill in their schedules with reality shows, which are cheap to produce.
Explaining the bumper crop of Jersey-based shows, Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center For TV and Popular Culture, said that when there were only three broadcast networks in the so-called "Golden Age" of television, you would not be seeing fare such as "Jersey Shore" on TV.
"There simply wasn't room to go this deep into the bench of ideas, which is why back then we got pretty much cops, and doctors and lawyers, detectives," Thompson said.
The Garden State is also a change-of-pace setting for a series, a world apart from Los Angeles or Manhattan.
"It's just completely fresh," said Misty Tish, the executive in charge of the set on "Jerseylicious." "When have you seen it, besides ‘The Sopranos'? You've seen California, the OC...and then comes this whole fresh East Coast vibe that's not hard-core New York City. But it's still all the style and fashion and beauty."
Next, producers can hook in viewers by playing to their stereotypes about Jersey folks: Namely, that they are an odd Eastern tribe with big hair, big mouths, their own dialect and a chip on their shoulders.
There is truth to that "stereotype," argue several executives who have been involved in the reality-TV genre. New Jersey residents tend to be outspoken, passionate and have big personalities — the exact kind of people that producers want for reality-TV shows, these executives claim.
New Jersey has long been the target of jokes, with Newark Mayor Cory Booker getting into a public dust-up earlier this year with Conan O'Brien over the "Tonight Show" host's ridicule of the state's biggest city, said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and co-author of "The Complete Guide to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows."
Asserting that "‘The Sopranos' didn't do anything good for the reputation of New Jersey," Brooks said, "New Jersey has been the butt of a lot of humor. It can't seem to escape that. And most of the programs that have been set in New Jersey or touch on New Jersey, if anything, amplify that. Even ‘Real Housewives of New Jersey."
New Jersey residents are depicted as "loud, profane and — depending on the show — maybe even violent, crass," Brooks said. "What is it, ‘guidos' and ‘guidettes' that they talk about on ‘Jersey Shore.'?"
Brooks added that while it's socially unacceptable to attack a minority group, there are no such qualms about Garden State inhabitants."New Jersey and New Jersey residents are not a protected group," he said. "There are certain things you can't do about African Americans or gays... But you can make fun of New Jersey people."
Thompson said that as more and more Jersey-based shows come on the air, it becomes a "self-fulfilling" prophecy that stereotypes about Garden State natives get reinforced.
"You get enough of these ‘Sopranos' and ‘Real Housewives of New Jersey' and ‘Jersey Boys' and all these things stacked up, and it educates a culture toward a stereotype that becomes very identifiable," Thompson said.
"Now, there are a lot of people who think that's bad, because ‘The Sopranos' and ‘Real Housewives' give you the sense that everybody who lives in New Jersey is one of about five different categories — such as a gangster, or an incredibly self-absorbed woman who thinks she's beautiful," he said.
But Thompson said viewers actually find these New Jersey TV characters "fascinating" and likable.
"You've got this language that's dialect," he said. "And even though there's a kind of cocky attitude that goes with it...They're a little more identifiable...For all of their character faults, you always get a sense that you could have a cheese steak with them."
Sarah Weidman, Style Network's senior vice president of development and new series, said she has worked on all kinds of reality shows and that "there is always somebody from Jersey in the mix."
According to Weidman, "In reality shows in general, you're always looking for people who are outspoken, and have opinions and are funny, and who just make for fun characters on television. And I think Jersey probably just has an endless supply. And I mean that in the best way."
Even though reality shows are non-scripted, and non-fiction, they are carefully "cast" the way that a TV drama, sitcom or film would be, according to Galinksy, who coaches and prepares would-be reality-TV stars for auditions.
"The only thing that's missing is a script," he said. "What's important for people who are interested in being on a show is to know that their life and their personality is what forms and develops the script."
"Jerseylicious" is being produced by Endemol USA, one of the top reality-TV producers, with hits such as "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Big Brother." And they are masters at casting the shows, by carefully questioning and analyzing potential candidates, according to Brooks.
"Endemol has got it down," he said. "They know how to do this stuff....They what the mechanics are. They know what should be on the questionnaire. They how to cast it. They're pros at this, and others who come in aren't."
In "Jerseylicious," Endemol picks up on the competition and differences in Big Apple and Jersey style, when the women from the Green Brook salon go to an upscale beauty parlor in Manhattan.
"What a lot of production companies are doing is they're zeroing in on New Jersey's chip on the shoulder or New Jersey's competitive nature with New York," Galinsky said. "It can be a healthy competition, in some cases. But in other cases it can be an inferiority complex, where there's some compensating being done...That's something that producers really like to mine."
It's been "a pleasant surprise" for producers to learn that New Jersey is such fertile ground for reality-TV programming, according to Galinksy.
"Now they're realizing, ‘Oh, wait a minute. New Jersey has so many different types of people,'" he said. "They're from the upper class, the middle- to lower-class. They're just so many different ethnicities. It's a really mixed demographic in a suburban landscape, which is great. It's relatable to the rest of the country, because of that suburban landscape. But it stands out because these people are so diverse and so quick to be happy from where they come from, to wear that on their sleeve."
"Jerseylicious" also capitalizes on a sub-category of reality show, those shot in beauty salons. That list includes Bravo's "Blow Out" and "Tabathas Salon Takeover," and Style Network's "Split Ends."
The combination of a salon and Jersey girls could be catnip to Style Network's female-skewing audience, according to Brooks, who the former research chief for women's network Lifetime Television.
"Women are familiar with beauty shops," Brooks said "You overlay on top of that the stereotype of New Jersey, ‘Oh, they're going to be loud. They're going to have big hair. They're going to be yelling at each other al the time. There's going to be a ‘goombah' outside the door.' That has a lot of face appeal to draw people to the screen. Whether it sustains, of course, depends on the show and the production. But to get them in there, you have to have a hook."
Professor Thompson believes that "Jerseylicious''s combination of a salon and the Garden State is a promising premise.
"Jersey and the hair shows are perfect," he said. "When one thinks of the most — what should we say not to be insulting — expressive forms of hair, one often thinks of Jersey. That's part of the catalog of Jersey stereotypes. That (‘Jerseylicious') seems to be a match absolutely made in heaven."
But Thompson said that "Jerseylicious" can't play to that stereotype too long.
"You've got to use the stereotype and the familiarity to set the stage, but then you actually have to go against that, or the whole thing just seems so predictable," he said.
Whether you like them or not, the recent wave of Jersey-based reality shows are putting the Garden State on the map, in terms of giving Americans a visual idea of what the area is like.
"Jersey is an important piece in the cultural identity puzzle of the United States, but there was never a sense that you could actually find it," Thompson said. "Where would you go? There is no downtown New Jersey. Even if you were going to go to a downtown, where do you go? Secaucus?"
TV programs like "The Sopranos" have given viewers a realistic take on parts of the state, like North Jersey and its suburbs and small cities.
"What's happening over the past 10 years or so is we are using these TV shows to slowly find New Jersey," Thompson said. "‘The Sopranos,' I think especially that opening sequence, it really gave a sense of, ‘OK, this is not only a state of mind, it's actually a place, and here's a pizza joint and a muffler shop."