MSNBC’s ‘Lockup’: Documentary or reality TV?

July 8, 2011

‘Lockup” is the crazy rich uncle of MSNBC, the relative whose gifts you accept, but whom you keep stowed away in the attic.

Like the MTV reality series “Jersey Shore,” the news channel’s incarceration series features plenty of bleeps and blurry hand gestures, but MSNBC insists that it’s a documentary series, not a reality series, and, therefore, fits. “ ‘Lockup’ is not MSNBC’s ‘Jersey Shore,’ ” says the channel’s president, Phil Griffin.

The series receives absolutely no promotion on the news channel whose brand is built on the Beltway bona fides of Rachel Maddow and Morning Joe. Andrea Mitchell is never going to say: “Thanks, Secretary Clinton. Now, here’s what’s happening in Wabash Correctional.” Sister network Bravo foists “Housewives of Wherever” on NBC’s “Today” with synergistic zeal, but the best bang “Lockup” has ever received was a segment on “Oprah,” not in the NBC family.

But it is a ratings bonanza, a prime-time juggernaut, even after a decade.

“ ‘Lockup’ just doesn’t need help,” says MSNBC’s long-form vice president, Scott Hooker. “It has proven it’s something that can succeed on its own. People know it is there.”


‘Lockup’ on MSNBC (MSNBC/MSNBC)

On the noisy MSNBC/Fox News/CNN battlefield, MSNBC wins on this one front. The show has become such a phenomenon that its schedulers can’t help running it hour upon hour upon hour.

For the year to date, in the valued 25-to-54 age group, “Lockup” averages 263,000 viewers, compared with, for example, 189,000 for MSNBC’s “The Chris Matthews Show.”

In Washington, repeats of “Lockup” draw more 25-to-54-year-olds than live newscasts on the other cable channels. In the MSNBC fly zone, where cuss words from Mark Halperin create dust storms, the profane aggression of “Lockup” provides a reliable ratings uplift. And “Lockup” has morphed into next-generation iterations: “Lockup: Raw” (a making-of series), “Lockup: World Tour” (foreign jails) and “Life After Lockup” (post-release).

Look at The Washington Post’s Saturday prime-time TV grid. Only TVLand’s three-hour “Everybody Loves Raymond” block rivals “Lockup’s”  lock on every half-hour. Beyond the grid, the show runs until 5 a.m. A taped series, it thrives on the repeat viewership of years-old episodes.

The “Lockup” Facebook page lit up on Saturday, May 7, when the series was bumped for Osama bin Laden coverage.

“The idiot is dead,” fumed one fan, “put my show on.”

Another responded: “Last week was that stupid wedding i means really!!! who cares put our show on!!!”

On the other hand, when Cairo erupted one day this winter, Fox News and CNN continued their live coverage through the following Saturday night. MSNBC flipped to “Lockup”— and attracted twice the viewers.

Caught in the middle is MSNBC’s Hooker. He wants to deliver the show to the fans he knows are expecting it while deferring to news decisions. “There are difficult calls to be made,” he says. “Sometimes we feel great. Other times, not so great. It can be tricky.”

The phenomenon defies MSNBC’s business model: a line-extension amortizing the expense of its NBC parent. NBC doesn’t even generate “Lockup.” Los Angeles-based 44 Blue Productions handles all filming and post-editing. (44 Blue was in town this year for its reality pilot “Potomac Fever.”) MSNBC’s reliance on 44 Blue represents the greatest amount of outsourcing by a news channel in TV today, possibly ever.

“We may be using an outside group, but, trust me, we vet it with the same standards we use on NBC News,” Griffin says.

Senior producer Elise Warner, the MSNBC staffer in charge of day-to-day supervision of “Lockup,” says,“I am very involved. I have editorial control of every minute that goes into this.”

Rasha Drachkovitch, 44 Blue’s executive producer, won’t even get into the question of reality vs. documentary, but he acknowledges the artificiality of the “Lockup” premise. “Cameras are a magnet for drama,” he says. “In Colorado, we were interviewing a sexual offender. The other inmates were upset we were paying attention to him. They started acting out.”

Drachkovitch freely admits to the many agendas that determine what 44 Blue can film. “We study the election cycle for every state,” he says. “We try to convince the governors there is an upside.”

“The prison is calling the shots,” says Gemma Puglisi, assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication. “The prison gives access to what they want to show.”

Puglisi worked at MSNBC in its infancy and has devoted much of her free time to the high-profile death-row case of Troy Anthony Davis. Watching “Lockup,” she says that the filmmakers have been told, “No, you can’t do this; you can’t do that.”

Fans understand the trade-offs. The Facebook page moderator recently asked, “What surprises you?” Along with “dudes who tattooed their eyes. FREAKY!” was “I haven’t seen all them crooked co’s [cops] faking it for the camera.” A female viewer posted: “It’s kind of a propaganda show.”

Firing up the Facebook base, the producers invited viewers to decide whether the new episodes that started July 2 would feature Boston or Tampa. (Boston won.) Maybe it’s even time for “Lockup” to come out from under NBC’s 30-rock. Says Griffin: “We should have ‘Lockup’ on ‘The Today Show.’ ”

If that happens, despite her reservations about “Lockup,” Puglisi hopes Matt Lauer points out one thing that fans already know. “Lockup” is not the monster that ate MSNBC. She says, “It’s just great television.”

Curry is a freelance writer.

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