Atlanta's Reality TV King
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the people engineering reality television … sort of engineer our reality, too.
By Sanjena Sathian
“Carlos,” you might say. “Carlos, me and my man are gonna break up.” Carlos King listens attentively. He mmhms. He’s there for you. Then he says: “So, you wanna do Thursday at 1 p.m.? You wanna do it at Trump Towers? You wanna talk to one of your girlfriends about it now?”
Then, he rushes into action to make it happen. King is a 36-year-old star reality-television producer who’s made his name by owning the seductive and salacious market of Atlanta, Georgia. King was the executive producer of the wildly popular, positively cult-classic Real Housewives of Atlanta — which has regularly grabbed more than 3 million viewers over its seven seasons so far. Now Housewives continues on without him; he’s working on two new brainchildren: Selling It in the ATL, following the lives of female real estate agents trying to outcompete one another to hawk their wares, and The Next 15, which invites erstwhile reality television stars to try for another shot.
Depending on your palate, The Next 15 is either as delicious as reality programming gets, or as distasteful. Either way, it represents a new trend that King refers to as “breaking the fourth wall” — producers have decided the new frontier for reality is to put themselves on screen. King is on camera, as a “transparent” producer for some 20 or 30 percent of every show, he tells me. He was partially inspired by the Lifetime sleeper hit Unreal — a scripted show that looks behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque series. You’ve gotta admire the artistry: Like a cinematographer, King has identified another camera angle, another way to engineer drama.
I was going to be the Black Barbara Walters … with a penis.
King has also tapped into a gold mine in the business: serialization. Real Housewives, says Dan Jackson, executive producer of Confessions: Animal Hoarding, stands out because it manifested in region after region — Beverly Hills, New York, New Jersey — each time addicting a new audience and carrying its old fans on as well. King took it a step further in Atlanta, branding individual characters and spinning off five separate shows.
I meet King, fresh off a flight from L.A., in the lobby of his apartment building. He apologizes for arriving in workout attire, but he looks better than most do all dressed up — fit and short, with a winning smile and a chill-BFF sort of charm. He is not forthcoming, though I’d hoped I might be his personal confessional camera. He’s prone to one-line answers and a quick “mmhm,” as if that settles any matter. Then the personal stuff surfaces: He’s gay, with a partner who’s “very private”; he grew up on the east side of Detroit, one of 10 kids and the son of a Ford employee and a housewife. While his siblings played sports, he watched TV: Teen Summit on BET, Roseanne, The Cosby Show. He was 13 when The Real World hit screens — and hit his imagination, hard.
Originally, King didn’t much fancy making a home in Atlanta. A college dropout, he ditched his broadcast journalism studies in New York (“I was going to be the Black Barbara Walters … with a penis”) in favor of internships at BET, MTV, The View and more. He worked two seasons on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, pulling double duty on the Atlanta seasons as well, before he moved to the ATL full-time. He figured it would be just a few months. Years later, he’s grateful — this is a city of “Black affluence,” he tells me, “like a Black Hollywood.”
The first months on the job don’t sound glamorous, though. King took notes during interviews, tracked story lines. In some cases, the plotline self-engineered — like on the fourth day of filming, when the producers hit gold on a moment any RHOA fan will remember well. Shereé Whitfield, one of the housewives, was throwing herself a birthday party — and fellow cast member NeNe Leakes wasn’t on the list. Television magic ensued. “I was like, WHAT is happening? This is draaaama,” King says, throwing up his hands in faux distress. “But that’s when I knew — this is gonna be hot.”
“He really worked his way up,” Whitfield tells me of King; they’re working together now on Selling It. Their odd twosome is a case study in just how hard it is to avoid draaaama in this business, even behind the camera. Tabloids reported that King and Whitfield had a falling-out over Selling It, claiming that Whitfield accused King of stealing her idea. Both say breezily that nothing of the sort went down. “Oh, they love to hate me,” King tells me of the ladies he manages, adding later that he’s like the “cool mom” — authoritative, beloved. Whitfield doesn’t think it’s all on the women. “Carlos King is drama,” she laughs.
Amid all the surface theatrics and hysterics, King also plugs into a funny debate that could occupy postmodern cultural critics for decades to come: Are shows like his feminist? Stay with us — and stay with King, as he penned an open letter arguing just this on BET two years ago: Despite the show’s title, it depicts a bevy of women who are hungry, ambitious and eager to make it, husbands aside.
As for his drive: He’d like to emerge from the vortex of endless wall-breaking and spinoffs, toward scripted TV. A move that’s “almost unheard of,” says Jackson. For now, King is booked solid, working, he says, 20-hour days, six days a week. He consults for people who’d like to start their own reality shows and has self-funded the new consulting biz. King seems motivated by a need for hard-nosed success wins — sharing some desires with the women he directs. “They want to be known,” he says. “They want something else, more than just being in aisle five at Publix. They want notoriety.”