This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The tragic death of Buckwild star Shain Gandee raises questions about the viability of what MTV hoped would become a successor franchise to Jersey Shore.
Gandee, 21, was found dead April 1 in his vehicle, along with his uncle and a friend, after going off-roading -- or, as Gandee's hobby is dubbed on the show, "mudding" -- on a remote road in West Virginia. The local sheriff's office ruled the death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. "Shain died peacefully in his sleep without pain or suffering," wrote Gandee's cousin on Facebook on April 2.
Production on the show's second season, which began a few weeks ago in Sissonville, W.Va., has been suspended indefinitely, and grief counseling quickly was set up on location for the cast, crew and their families. At press time, no decision had been made with regard to the show's future.
Gandee's death comes as Buckwild has become a much-needed hit for MTV. The young-skewing network has struggled to stay relevant in an increasingly fractured landscape, having shed 25 percent of its primetime audience in the 18-to-49 demographic in 2012. A new president of programming, Susanne Daniels, took over in November.
While Buckwild has yet to garner the ratings Shore did at its height, the new series drew 2.5 million viewers to its January premiere, putting it ahead of the 2009 Jersey Shore bow (1.4 million) and the opener of spinoff Snooki & JWoww (2.4 million). Some even dubbed Buckwild the "redneck Jersey Shore." During the series' first season, it averaged 3.2 million total viewers on a live-plus-seven-day basis. Advertisers responded, too, spending a healthy $10 million collectively on ads to run during the show in January, according to Kantar Media.
The cast was poised to benefit from the success in season two. With the help of Hollywood reps at Paradigm, Parallel Entertainment and attorneys at the Del Shaw law firm, Gandee and seven fellow castmembers renegotiated their contracts to score a 300 percent raise. Each went from $1,000 an episode in season one to $4,000 an episode in season two, plus a $5,000 bonus, according to multiple sources. (Salwa Amin, the ninth member of the ensemble, who has been in and out of jail on drug charges, was not part of the renegotiation.) MTV declined comment on the cast's financials, noting only that it was "shocked" and "saddened" by Gandee's death. Some castmembers also were collecting as much as $10,000 in appearance fees, says a source, with Gandee's family candy business poised to get a big boost as well thanks to the TV exposure. At the time of his death, Gandee's reps were in talks with a factory to start manufacturing the sweets on a regional level; it is not clear whether the family will move forward with its plans.
All of that is in peril now. MTV has a difficult decision to make as to how and if the show continues. The fact that Gandee's death did not occur while cameras were rolling, nor was it related to production of the show, is a welcome relief for the reality genre, which has been under fire about unsafe working conditions. In this case, as Gandee's father told manager-producer J.P. Williams, whose Parallel also produces the show with Zoo Productions, Gandee "died doing what he loved to do."
While Gandee was the breakout star of season one, an insider says that before his death, producers had been trying to broaden season two to focus on some of the other characters and relationships. "You won't have a show that will last if you just focus on one character all of the time," says that source. However, another insider notes that the plans for season two still very much centered on Gandee and questions how the show can continue without him.
There were said to be internal conversations on the day of Gandee's death about "softening" the show, which has focused on such behavior as off-roading, tire rolldowns and hard partying. But doing so likely would prove incongruous with the show's brand -- and potentially turn off viewers in the process.
For now, one of reality TV's hottest properties remains in limbo. Says Williams, "We're taking a few weeks to give the cast a chance to get a handle on this because they are devastated."
Michael O'Connell contributed to this report.
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