Twenty years ago, this week, a family threw open the doors to their gothic Beverly Hills mansion and welcomed the TV cameras in to record every moment of their lives.
With the opening scene featuring Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne struggling to work the TV remote control, the Prince of Darkness’s bemused appearance set the tone for the madness that would come over the next four seasons.
Between 2002 and 2005, before social media, and with widespread use of the internet still in its infancy, the world was glued to the antics of Ozzy, Sharon, Kelly, Jack and their menagerie of small dogs.
‘They filmed everything. Everything’
The show’s influence on the future of family reality TV cannot be overstated. Although the Osbournes were not quite what would be considered the “average family”, the show, the brainchild of matriarch Sharon, herself a pioneer for that other savvy female family head Kris Jenner, turned the everyday mundanities of life into must-watch television.
“You have to remember, no one had ever done what we did before,” Kelly Osbourne told the Armchair Expert podcast last year. “So, as we were doing it, we didn’t know either. We didn’t know what they were going to use, and what they weren’t, because they filmed everything. Everything.”
While there had been a few previous forays into early reality television, such as 1973’s An American Family, a documentary-style show broadcast on PBS about the Loud family, and 1989’s Cops, it wasn’t until the 1992 game-changer The Real World, which brought together a group of young strangers to live together, that the genre found its footing.
The show, broadcast on MTV, was a huge success, and was followed by another ratings winner, Cribs, in which celebrities showed the cameras around their house.
Combining the two – celebrity and family – was the next logical step, and The Osbournes was born, debuting on March 5, 2002.
“Prior to doing Cribs, every time that MTV would do something on Ozzfest, it would always end up being myself and my sister giving MTV a tour,” Jack told The Ringer. “I think what Cribs ended up actually being was just a second audition reel. It was us in our house, with our parents, showing everyone around and rolling with things.”
‘The house became a studio’
“It was chaos,” Sharon told US chat show The Talk in 2020. “We had about 30 crew, 24 hours a day. The house wasn’t a home any more, it was a studio.”
Putting their lives in the hands of MTV producers also meant a camera being installed in 17-year-old Kelly’s bedroom. Having to cover it up each time she got undressed, it was an intrusion that would be impossible to justify or fathom these days.
The family themselves have been candid about the effect the show had on their lives, both positive and negative.
Each pocketed $20,000 per episode for the first season’s run of 10 episodes, a salary that rose to $5 million each for the whole of the second season, which consisted of 20 instalments (about $250,000 each per episode). The show was responsible for relaunching Ozzy’s career, as well as putting Sharon, and teenagers Kelly and Jack, firmly on the fame map.
In 2002, the show scooped an Emmy for Best Reality Series and paved the way for the likes of The Simple Life in 2003 starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which followed the post-nuptial lives of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.
The Kardashians are ‘manipulating their lives for the public’
Put simply, without The Osbournes, there would be no Kardashians. And these days, the Osbourne family’s salaries seem almost quaint compared with what their modern-day counterparts earn.
For later episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which ended in June last year after a 20-season run, the family was said to have been paid $150 million per season, which, when divided up, worked out at about $930,000 per person, per episode.
While Kris Jenner has never publicly acknowledged the influence The Osbournes had on facilitating her own family’s success, Sharon has been outspoken about the Kardashian-Jenner clan and the direction in which they took reality TV.
“Ours came organically. Nobody came to us and said: ‘We’ve got an idea, will you do this?’” she told People. “With the Kardashians, it’s amazing because I look at it in a business point of view and I see those three gorgeous girls influencing a young generation. But I also think they should be awarded for manipulation of the press and all of us because they do it brilliantly. I don’t think the show is real, which is no problem, but they’re manipulating their lives as long as the public is concerned.”
The Osbournes can also rightly take credit for the warts-and-all approach to reality television that has proved such a hit with fans. During their four-season run, the show was unflinching in its coverage of Sharon’s battle with colon cancer, as well as the quad bike accident that nearly ended Ozzy’s life.
Real life-turned-lurid storylines such as these have become a Kardashian staple with divorce, sibling rivalry, infidelity, DUIs and jail time all laid bare for the cameras.
“The minute somebody is in their head or faking it, you can tell,” Henriette Mantel, segment producer on The Osbournes told The Ringer. “When you’re watching them on TV, you can tell they’re phony baloney. The beauty of Ozzy is that he was never phony baloney. He was always just who he was, and it was so refreshing.”
Show editor Greg Nash said: “You can ask the Kardashians to do a thousand things and they’ll just never be people I really want to watch. Ozzy can take out the trash and I would watch every second of it.”