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The Osbournes: Showing Family Life and Making Money Doing It

I'm addicted to watching the Osbournes traipse around their house. No, I'm not a stalker, but in a way I am a multimedia peeping tom.

Tamara Watkins

Issue #67, April 2004

Okay — I admit it — I'm addicted to watching the Osbournes traipse around their house. No, I'm not a stalker, but in a way I am a multimedia peeping tom. Through the miracle of television, I get to watch them weekly, on The Osbournes, MTV's "reality sitcom." But the fun doesn't stop there. The show's MTV website contains Osbourne e-cards. It contains a look at family photos of Ozzy, his wife and manager Sharon, and their children, taken over the last twenty or so years. One can even view floor plans there of the Osbournes' spacious Gothic, crucifix-laden Los Angeles mansion.

I'm not alone in my interest in the Osbourne clan. According to Mark Armstrong's article "The Osbournes Set MTV Cable Record," between 6.3 million and 7.8 million people tuned in to watch the misadventures of Ozzy and company during the show's first season. This popularity catapulted The Osbournes into cable television history, making it the most popular show to ever appear on MTV. Although I find the Osbournes' antics highly amusing, I feel a little weird about the fact that I can enter their house every week, undetected like a seasoned cat burglar. If I owned any of Ozzy's albums, perhaps I would feel differently. I would be able to justify checking out his house's architecture every week, since I helped finance it by slamming down my hard-earned cash for Ozzy-, or even Kelly-,related merchandise. If it at all redeems me, I do crank up "Iron Man" whenever it is on the radio.

Perhaps people like me are the reason the Osbournes opted to create a "docudramady" about their charmed existence, and to show it to the members of the public who are in their twenties or younger. These are the people too young to remember how awesome Ozzy was in the 1970s, but old enough to have spending money, so it makes sense that this generation would be targeted. As a member of it, I can vouch for the fact that we are a formidable economic force. We bore easily, we burn through money, and we like entertainment. A great example of my generation's capacity to spend, spend, spend is the fact that we're the generation who willingly paid hundreds of dollars to attend Pepsi's apocalyptic version of Woodstock in 1999, an experience we commemorated with nipple piercings and arson. If Ozzy can tap into this market — sans violence in the audience, of course — he can afford to replace all of the carpets that his dogs keep destroying.

The OsbournesThe sly producers of The Osbournes know their target demographic is predominately college-aged and younger, so they focused a significant portion of the show on Ozzy and Sharon's two youngest children, Kelly (age 17) and Jack (ages 16) during the first season. Kelly and Jack epitomize what teenagers (and, deep down inside, some college-aged individuals) want to be: rich owners of three very desirable things: designer clothes, spacious bedrooms, and parents who are understanding, incredibly permissive, and just plain cool. Viewers thus become fans of Kelly and Jack quite by design. The show's producers also hope this means that 'tweens and teens just getting over their Bubblegum Pop Star crushes will become enthralled with the Osbourne kids. A great advantage of this is that Kelly's album might actually sell some copies. No doubt some teens will watch the show and like Ozzy's music, or buy it because it seems cool. Either way, television exposure translates in the marketplace to increased record and merchandise sales, which in turn means only one thing: more money for the Osbournes.

Teenagers aren't the only audience The Osbournes draws. The show also draws a number of viewers over age 35. That's pretty impressive for MTV. It's hard to think of any other show on the network that would draw that demographic. Total Request Live (TRL)? Unlikely, since parents are at a loss for which band is popular with the kids these days. The Osbournes' popularity could be attributed to the fact that reality TV is en vogue. However, a more likely explanation may be Ozzy's status as an aging metal icon draws viewers of all ages because, simply, they listen to his music and want a glimpse of his home life. One wonders what they think of the "Iron Man" being unable to operate his TV's remote control.

The popularity of the show speaks volumes about the popularity of the Osbournes themselves. Until the show began airing, most 12 year olds would be hard-pressed to identify an Osbourne. Now, 12-year-olds attend Kelly's concerts, but men over 40 also populate her shows. College students, situated in age between the other two demographic groups, seem to provide Kelly with the most fans. This is the interesting part — the gaggle of 12-year-old fans makes sense, but college students and older individuals, should be Ozzy fans, not Kelly fans.

What is her appeal? Can fame and fans be inherited? Does Kelly draw an audience based on the merits of her music, of her TV persona, or her famous name? Is Osbourne-adoration just another way for aging hipsters to maintain their hip quotient?

Why do people watch the show? I posit that multiple generations mean multiple levels of appeal, and generation — specific appeal at that.

For Generation Y viewers, Ozzy might be just another old fogey of rock, much like the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith. However, he's also a TV star, and for the past three years he has been on MTV quite a bit. So were his kids, the most accessible characters for this generation. Again, the show's producers slickly manufactured the show in a manner that showcased the Osbourne offspring. Young viewers can giggle at the stumbling, bumbling aging rocker as they relate to Kelly and Jack, all the time wishing they had Ozzy and Sharon for parents, their impressive bankroll, and their famous friends. Ozzy can then become the father they want — fabulously wealthy, wonderfully incoherent, understandably permissive.

Members of Generation X and Boomer viewers are a bit different, however, because they're much more likely to come to watch the show as Ozzy fans in the first place. If Gen X viewers are a little too young to have witnessed the heroic 1970s Ozzy, they were there for his 1980s comeback and his string of 1990s successes. They might have seen him in concert in the '80s, and perhaps they remember the bat-eating and Alamo incidents. If they're a bit too young for that, they likely went to an Ozzfest.

I'm a member of Gen X, and I really enjoy The Osbournes. My interest comes not from a passionate love for Ozzy's body of work. I'm more interested in what it is like to be a rock star. OK, a rock icon. I think my generation would be equally, if not more, enthralled with The Cobains — assuming, of course, Kurt never killed himself, he and Courtney stayed married, and Frances Bean is as obnoxiously entertaining as Kelly Osbourne.

I think my generation would truly be interested in The Cobains because we were teens and in our early twenties when we listened to grunge. Nirvana was the soundtrack of our lives for an all-too-brief time, so its genre holds sentimental value for 20- and 30-something rock fans. Likewise, Black Sabbath was the soundtrack of youth for Boomers. Ozzy offers Boomers who miss youth a way of reliving their past. No doubt some would like to go back to their Black Sabbath-loving, pot-smoking heyday. Ozzy, as a perpetual adolescent,and a Boomer as well, offers Boomer viewers an opportunity to see what life would be like if their bands had been successful, or if they had just never compromised to become yuppies.

Arguably more interesting is the widely varying reaction of subcultures to Ozzy. Republicans have hailed him as a good father. He attended the White House Correspondents dinner. He and his family became media darlings, and are adored by MTV viewers, Sharon's talk show audience, and Kelly's fan base. It seems like the title of their show should be changed from The Osbournes to Everybody Loves Ozzy.

Not everyone loves Ozzy, though. In 2002, Bill Cosby called the Osbourne clan "a sad, sad family" and deemed the show not to be entertainment. This is a pretty heavy thing for American's favorite 80s TV dad to say. According to "Ozzy Osbourne: The Rest of the Story," a Rightwing Christian webpage written by Ted Watkins (no relation to this author), Ozzy has committed "various crimes against God and nature." He is said to be demon-possessed, drinks blood, and gets kids to worship Satan. Somebody stop this man! I didn't really think Ozzy was evil, but I should've caught on simply because Republicans like him and Bill Cosby doesn't.

The appeal, and perhaps also the repulsiveness, of Ozzy is that he is an exaggerated version of Everyman. He lives opulently and is a bit addled from years of rock n roll and drugs, but he's also a devoted husband and father. He works hard to provide for his family, his wife lies to him about how much she spends on shopping trips, his daughter rolls her eyes at parental public displays of affection, he needs his son's assistance to work his TV remote, and he cusses about the destructive pets. He's just like all of our dads . . . except he's on MTV.

Tamara Watkins is a Communication and Multimedia graduate student at Saginaw Valley State University.

Copyright © 2004 by Tamara Watkins. Drawing copyright Mike Mosher 2004. All rights reserved.