Reality TV -- on the News

Not too long ago, the most sought-after guest in television was not a celebrity, a politician or a well-respected scholar. She was just an ordinary woman.

Of course, she also happened to be married to Richard Ricci, the now-deceased handyman police were focusing on in the disappearance of Utah teen Elizabeth Smart. And because of her connection to one of the biggest stories of the summer, Angela Ricci was suddenly wanted by every news show in America.

Though ordinary people have long been flitting in and out of headlines, TV insiders say they've seen more and more of them become the hot guests every producer or booker is scrambling to get first.

"It's finding the neighbor of the ex-con who's accused of sneaking into houses," said Rob Monaco, who oversees booking for Fox News Channel's On the Record With Greta Van Susteren. "He might be toothless and shirtless, but he's the guy you want. It's the strangest change in guest gathering."

Monaco said that during every hour-long show, at least one of the handful of guests Van Susteren interviews falls into the "real person" category.

The list of "average people" who have recently become known overnight seems endless: Madelyne Toogood. Eunice Stone. The Smart Family. The Pennsylvania miners. Not to mention their relatives, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

"You want everyone connected to see what these people are like behind the scenes," said Monaco.

With the increasing variety of cable programming, competition is fiercer than ever. But while clawing for ratings might be part of it, so is all that extra cable-news airtime.

"There are all those hours to fill and many of these discussions are overkill," said media analyst Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. "So who are you left with? Somebody who knows somebody who saw this woman beat up her kid. There's a very large bottom of the barrel."

Monaco said he scans the news every night for a source the competition might overlook.

"Bookers are working so hard now to get the person no one else thought of," he said.

Michael Shannon, whose two young sons were abducted from New York to Cairo by their Egyptian mother, was one "real person" whose compelling story thrust him into the spotlight last summer.

"It was very, very bizarre," the Baltimore man said. "I wasn't ready for it."

Though some skeptics might quote Andy Warhol and scoff that everyone wants 15 minutes of fame, Shannon said that didn't enter his mind during his time in the public eye.

"I didn't feel like a celebrity. I wasn't hoping I'd get a movie contract," he said. "I felt if there was anything to help my children and other children, I would gladly do it. If it weren't for [sons] Adam and Jason, I'd have no reason to go on television."

Not everyone in the TV biz has seen a big shift in the guest lineup. Morning shows, for instance, still seem to be doing what they've done for years: featuring lighter content with a potpourri of topics and people in the news.

"We've always covered those kinds of guests: the newsmakers, the celebrities, the ordinary people in extraordinary situations," said Lisa Finkel, a spokeswoman for ABC's Good Morning America. "There's no particular change in focus. Maybe the morning shows are a different entity."

But in the harder-hitting evening news shows, producers can only put on so many analysts, experts and pundits before viewers get tired and change the channel.

"It's an evolution in the booking realm, that you veer away from observers and opt for players, even when the news happens to absolute nobodies," said Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

The shelf life of guests that are hot -- and then not -- is often much shorter than that of even the most fleeting of fashions.

"It's the 'flavor of the month,'" said Felling.

And Gitlin wondered how much would become too much.

"When the offerings of these men and women on the street become more and more feeble, maybe interest wanes," he said. "Maybe there's a limit."