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Reality TV's love of Austin a tourism boon for city

Gary Dinges
gdinges@statesman.com

Reality TV has fallen hard for Austin.

This week alone, producers from three separate reality shows are in Central Texas in search of picture-perfect contestants.

"The X Factor" drew an estimated 5,000 hopefuls to auditions Thursday at the Erwin Center, while two other series — MTV's "Real World" and "Home Transformers," which is scheduled to debut soon on NBC — are holding casting calls today.

Crews from several other popular primetime programs, including Fox's hit show "American Idol," NBC's "America's Got Talent" and CBS' "Amazing Race," have also made stops in Austin.

Bravo's recently wrapped "Top Chef: Texas" featured three episodes shot in Central Texas. Paul Qui, this season's winner, is an Austinite and executive chef at Uchiko, a Japanese and sushi restaurant on North Lamar Boulevard.

All that free exposure, city tourism officials say, helps sell Austin to people — and companies — worldwide.

"This kind of thing is tough to quantify, but it's pretty safe to say the more people know about Austin, the more they tend to like it," said Gary Bond, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau's director of film marketing. "To the extent a particular reality show reflects the ‘real Austin,' one would expect it to have a positive effect on image and tourism."

TV executives say they're drawn to the area, in part, because of its young, hip vibe.

"Austin has a reputation for being eclectic," said Damon Furberg, "Real World's" supervising casting director. "It's a city where we get a lot of variety."

Having the University of Texas in town doesn't hurt, either. For "Real World's" 28th season, Furberg and his team are looking for housemates who "appear to be between the ages of 20 and 24."

"We always do pretty well there in terms of people showing up," he said. "I'd say we come back every other year, at least."

Several Austinites have been featured on the show over the years, including Kevin Dunn, now an anchor for ESPN's Longhorn Network.

"Real World" shifts its home base to a new city each year, Furberg said, and producers have yet to pick their next location. The show's 16th season was set in Austin.

Many cities have had to pay to get similar attention. In the case of "Top Chef: Texas," the City of San Antonio offered producers $200,000, helping it become the host city. That's on top of $400,000 from the state's Economic Development and Tourism Division, part of the governor's office.

Documents obtained by the American-Statesman last year show San Antonio expected its payment would lead to more than $9 million in "positive media value."

Tourism officials in Austin were approached by "Top Chef," they've said, but offered no incentives.

Even without financial incentives, more and more shows are clamoring to cast and shoot here.

"I always like to go to the center of the country," said Michael Yates, casting director for "Home Transformers." "Austin's still growing, the city's doing well, and the people are interesting and engaging."

"Home Transformers" is in the process of searching a handful of cities nationwide for builders, craftsmen, decorators and designers who will team up to restore rundown homes.

"We're looking for the ‘wow' factor," Yates said. "Networks like to focus on Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but we found there were some fabulous firms in Austin. It's kind of like a mini design mecca."

And there's more to come. Reality TV's love affair with Austin rekindles next month with a visit from "A Chance to Dance," a new show for the Ovation cable network that's on the lookout for talented ballet dancers.

Contact Gary Dinges at 912-5987. Email gdinges@statesman.com

Reality TV auditions