New Year, New Realities: Selling Recovery TV

As the New Year approaches, many of us are thinking about how to lead cleaner, healthier lives. Some of us may even take that thought right onto reality television.

Over the past few years, there’s been a surge in reality-TV programming dedicated to issues of substance abuse, addiction, and recovery. These include the long-standing “Intervention” (A&E), launching season 12 on Jan. 2; “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” (VH1), which just ended its fifth season; and the newbie on the block, “DUI,” which debuted Dec. 1 on TLC. This may sound like a lot of sensationalism—until you realize that there are more than 22 million Americans dealing with the disease of addiction to alcohol and other substances, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

So how do you market shows like this? Carefully. I interviewed marketing, publicity and production executives involved in these shows, and came up with “12 Steps to a Successful Recovery TV Marketing Campaign.”



1. Know your show. Yes, the shows are entertainment, first; yes, they’re reality-based. But they’re also cautionary tales. “It’s dangerous content,” says Dan Partland, executive producer of “Intervention.”  “We knew the show’s standards had to be very high and we had to be beyond reproach if we were to tell a meaningful story.”

2. Know your responsibility. The executives are aware that they’re helping create awareness of a topic rife with stigma and shame. “‘Celebrity Rehab” gets people talking about addiction and sheds light on what rehab is all about,” says Valerie Allen, Dr. Drew’s personal publicist.

3. Know your audience. And who is that exactly? Everyone I talked to said that they were appealing to a “mainstream” audience. “DUI” executive producer Jim Kowats says simply, “Americans like to watch failure and redemption.” But given the statistic above, mainstream now includes plenty of people touched by addiction—including the family and friends of people struggling with the disease.

4. Start small and slow. “Back in 2005, when we first put Intervention on the air, it was kind of a radical idea for a show,” says Guy Slattery, SVP of marketing for A&E. “It was the first show of its kind so we weren’t really sure what the response would be,” adds Partland. Given its sensitive nature, they started with a soft launch and a word-of-mouth campaign to gauge audience reaction before investing in more costly traditional marketing campaigns.

5. Go organic. A show as “radical” as “Intervention” needs time to find its audience. Fortunately for A&E, recovery communities embraced the show and it grew from there—with a mainstream audience growing alongside. With “Celebrity Rehab,” “There were some critics who felt the show went too far and others who thought it didn't go far enough,” says Allen. Ultimately, the show succeeded on its own terms.

6. Go raw with promos. Every network kicks off a new series with on-air promos. What’s different with each of these shows is the creative: seemingly raw footage of the participants—no dramatic music or voice-of-doom narration.  “It’s not about showing these people as bad so you’ll watch the episode.  The promos are treated with integrity in the same way the shows are,” says Partland. Before the launch of “DUI,” TLC released sneak-peek footage to the press—no sensationalism, just footage.

7. Listen to viewer feedback.  “Since day one, we’ve received an overwhelming response from families who say the show has changed their lives by offering hope, inspiration and solutions,” says Slattery.  “We’ve also learned from them that addiction doesn’t live in a vacuum—we need to address the whole family dynamic both in the show and in our marketing approach.”

8. Emphasize your credentials. Airing rehab sessions with troubled celebrities would have a major eye-rolling factor if it weren’t for the credibility of Drew Pinsky, who figures prominently in ads and PR campaigns. Pinsky, an M.D. with board certifications in internal and addiction medicine, has worked with addicts for nearly 30 years. “He was already a well-respected expert in the field and beloved by the addiction community,” says Allen.

9. Expand the brand. Not with sweatshirts or bobble-heads, but with efforts that befit the subject. Thanks to the positive response of the recovery community to “Intervention,” A&E launched The Recovery Project “to generate awareness that addiction is a treatable disease and recovery is possible.” With a big Facebook presence and national outreach, The Recovery Project hosts town hall meetings and Recovery Month events, and creates partnerships with nonprofits like Partnership for a Drug Free America.

10. Let your people speak. “‘Intervention” participants become ambassadors for the show and for recovery,” says Partland. A meth addict from Minnesota named Sara went on to work in her local police department, speaks to teens about the dangers of substance abuse, and appeared on “Oprah.” “People like Tom Sizemore, Mackenzie Phillips, Steven Adler and others serve as an inspiration and remove the stigma for others to seek treatment,” adds Allen.

11. Win an Emmy. In 2009, A&E sent a screener to Television Academy voters in an effort to get them to watch “Intervention.” They did. And the show won the Emmy for “Outstanding Reality Series.”

12. Look for the next big thing. Is the market saturated with recovery programming? Not necessarily. A colleague of mine, Jennifer Musselman, a former PR executive for Nickelodeon, is now a psychotherapist treating individuals and families dealing with substance abuse. She suggests that, unfortunately, there’s still plenty of material in this arena. “Right now, the untapped story is adolescent substance abuse, which the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University calls ‘the No. 1 public health problem in the United States,’” says Musselman.

“Ironically, we haven’t seen the reality of what’s happening with adolescent substance dependence reflected in reality television. Reality TV done responsibly may not resolve it, but it could be an important prevention tool. If tweens and teens see its devastating consequences and parents become better informed, we just might start attacking the problem that so many families are affected by today.” Stay tuned.

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