*It was only a matter of time before the rising tide of Manti Te’o’s controversy would lift MTV’s new reality series “Catfish: The TV Show,” which follows young people seeking to find out if the online love they have yet to meet is actually the person they claim to be.
Ratings for the show jumped 30 percent with Monday’s episode, its first since news of Manti Te’o hoax broke last week. [Scroll down to watch the entire episode.] According to Nielsen, the hourlong unscripted series topped all other cable broadcasts in the key 18-49 demo. In total viewers, “Catfish” also matched a high with 2.7 million viewers (up from 2.1 million).
The term catfish, a person posing as someone else online, was introduced to popular culture in 2010 with the release of “Catfish,” a documentary that followed Yaniv “Nev” Schulman’s quest to find out if his online love was indeed who she claimed to be. Needless to say, she wasn’t.
The sports blog Deadspin revealed in a Jan. 16 exposé that Te’o — the star Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up whose girlfriend supposedly died at the start of the college football season — had been the subject of a hoax.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick mentioned “Catfish” several times in describing the school’s response to news that Te’o's girlfriend didn’t exist. Schulman weighed in soon after, noting it “can and obviously does happen to anyone.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, traffic to MTV’s “Catfish” website has also exploded with the term’s new popularity. A network rep says traffic grew 50 percent in the eight-day period following the Te’o news — and streams grew by 66 percent between Jan. 15 and 22. MTV recently renewed the show for a second season.
Te’o was grilled by Katie Couric on today’s broadcast of her daytime talk show. She wanted answers to the same questions pondered by those who believe the athlete was in on the hoax from the very beginning. Couric even asked about speculation that Te’o is secretly gay, and simply made up a girlfriend to hide it.
“Are you gay?” asked Couric?
“No. Far from it,” he replied.
When we spoke to Nev Shulman for MTV’s “Catfish” last summer, he addressed the accusations of fraud that followed the film’s Sundance premiere. Critics believed that Nev was an actor, and the doc’s directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Nev’s friend and brother, respectively) actually scripted the film and passed it off as a documentary, as viewers had a hard time believing anyone can fall in love with a person that doesn’t exist.
“We never expected it to be controversial because it happened to us, and we never thought that people would not believe us,” said Nev. “But the conversations that it started trumped the controversy. And the fact that people were talking about their online lives and how much time we all spend using the Internet is a conversation that I was excited to be at the center of and continue to want to explore and talk about.”
Below Nev explains the format of “Catfish: The TV Show.” [Scroll down to watch this week's episode featuring Rod and Ebony.]