Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless – Richard Brownell – Medium
The passing of Robin Leach on August 24 after a stroke probably did not resonate with many people under 30. Another old TV personality died. So what? Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Never heard of it.
Even a friend who remembers that wonderfully tasteless show like I do suggested that Leach’s death, though sad, was not all that special. Sandwiched in between news of the deaths of renowned Sen. John McCain and acclaimed playwright Neil Simon, Leach did not deserve to round out the latest celebrity death trio. My friend said that Leach just didn’t belong in the same league as a war hero and a broadway legend.
I respectfully disagree.
Robin Leach, as co-creator and host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, not only perfectly captured the glitz and glamour of the 1980s, but, along with producer Alfred Masini, he established a template that television producers and programmers have been imitating ever since.
Leach had been a celebrity reporter for a couple decades when the idea of doing a television program focusing on the lifestyles of the super-rich came to him. He was no stranger to TV, having been present at the creation of CNN and Entertainment Tonight. ET, as it would later come to be known, was the brainchild of a plucky, creative independent TV producer named Al Masini.
Masini, who was also responsible for such ’80s TV mainstays as Solid Gold and Star Search, perfected the syndicated programming model — creating quality content for local and regional television stations that were outside the networks.
Before our modern 500-channels-and-nothing-to-watch world, a vast majority of TV came to us from three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC. Up until the mid-1970s no one outside these big three had the money, the technology, or the talent to create TV programming to draw audiences. Masini changed that.
Through Operation Prime Time, a consortium of independent TV stations, Masini produced a string of TV movies, mostly sensationalized biopics and mini-series adaptations of current best-selling novels. The films were snapped up by local stations, which received a greater percentage of the ad revenue they got working with the networks. Audiences flocked to the new programming because it was a fresh departure from the network mold. (That word can be taken to mean a cast or template and/or that icky fungus that grows on stale bread.)
Leach and Masini came up with what would later become Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in the late ’70s, but the timing wasn’t right. When you had a president on TV wearing a cardigan sweater saying that they even turned down the thermostat at the White House to save energy, it was a little hard to push the wealthy lifestyle on American audiences. But after Ronald Reagan became president and the economy turned around, the stage was set for Lifestyles.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous initially started as a limited series in 1984, but high ratings and a hearty audience reception convinced Leach and Masini to go forward with an open-ended commitment.
The show ran in syndication for 11 years. Each week featured a group of wealthy celebrities, business moguls, and royalty from around the world. We got first-hand glimpses of their airline-hangar sized living rooms, their priceless works of art, their 30,000-gallon hot tubs, their gold-plated toilet seats, their fleets of jets and luxury cars, and more. Nothing was too lavish or garish or gauche for Leach’s commentary.
Everyone who appeared on the show was game to show off their toys. Some, like Donald Trump, were repeat guests. But that was the idea. The 1980s was the decade of conspicuous consumption, an era when people pursued wealth for wealth’s sake. Of course, that can be said about pretty much every decade in American history with the expection of the 1860s, the 1930s, or the 1940s. But this was different. This time, the public got a front row seat to the action. And Robin Leach, with his British accent and excited style, was just the man to bring it to us.
TV and social critics panned Lifestyles as the beginning of the end of Western Civilization. Gaudy and intemperate, vain and shallow; they viewed the show much like they viewed the ’80s as a whole: a decade of greed.
In the end, their views really meant little. The American public dug the show. It inspired people to want to achieve what they saw on TV. They didn’t say, “No one should have that.” Instead, they said, “I WANT that!”
Robin Leach would become rich and famous himself off the show he hosted and carried for over a decade. In later years, Lifestyles ran out of steam. The formula got tired, and the show turned into a thinly veiled infommercial for glamorous vacation destinations, drifting from its original intent.
It would be a mistake to say that people got tired of peeking in on the lives of the rich and famous. MTV would reinvent the genre with Cribs in 2000, doing what Leach did with younger, more accessible (but still rich) personalities. That show is still running. And let’s not forget the Kardashians, the Vanderpumps, and all those rich housewives around the country. These shows keep going, and keep spinning off into new shows like plant spores. The only difference now is that the gaudy lifestyles are draped in a lot of faux drama.
So, yeah, Robin Leach did matter. He entertained people and shared a side of life that his audiences wouldn’t otherwise know. And that is part of journalism, is it not? Not everything has to be Woodward & Bernstein. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating wealth. Remember:
“This contempt for money is just another trick of the rich to keep the poor without it.” Michael Corleone
I’d like to hear your comments. Send them along. And please be sure to check out my other articles on Medium and at my website. Cheers!