Amid catcalls, Silicon Valley gets its reality TV treatment

SAN FRANCISCO Tue Nov 6, 2012 6:15pm EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - They have been panned by television critics and disavowed by their own industry. Even for the entrepreneurs-cum-co-stars of Bravo TV's "Start-ups: Silicon Valley," it is getting hard to put on a brave face.

"It's been a nightmare," confessed Sarah Austin, one of the series' six pretty twentysomethings who code, party and hustle their way to fame and riches - or at least try to - in San Francisco's bubbly tech fishbowl.

"I've had a lot of figures in Silicon Valley tell me that it was a mistake," Austin said. "I think sometimes that it wasn't worth it."

That is a little surprising, coming from an Internet personality (and self-described angel investor) whose first burst of notoriety came from uploading videos of herself crashing tech parties in 2006.

But her apprehension speaks to the scorn that has piled up like rush-hour traffic on Highway 101 for the eight-episode series.

Since Bravo announced the show in April, it has been greeted with horrified tweets and Facebook updates by geeks who feared the show would portray the Valley about as faithfully as "Jersey Shore" rendered the people of New Jersey. Tech blogger Sarah Lacy seemed to sum up the Valley's reaction with a plaintive post titled, "Randi Zuckerberg: How Could You Do This to Real Entrepreneurs?"

But with California's youth-obsessed startup economy booming - and seeping into popular culture (think "The Social Network") - a Valley reality show seemed like a no-brainer for Bravo. Once dedicated to arts programming, the NBCUniversal-owned cable channel is now known for series such as "Real Houswives of New Jersey" and "Top Chef" - and the "Bravo-lebrities" its shows have spawned.

Produced by Randi Zuckerberg, sister of the Facebook Inc founder, the show purports to follow six young entrepreneurs in their habitat as they write code, party and try to get venture capital funding.

'BROGRAMMERS' AND BLONDES

The plotline revolves around Ben and Hermione Way, a brother-and-sister duo from London who are short on original startup ideas but long on cheerfulness and good looks.

There's also Dwight Crow, a bundle of testosterone and the quintessential "brogrammer"; Austin, who is slotted halfheartedly into the blond vixen role; and David Murray, who ostensibly has coding chops and once worked at Google but just plays the typecasted gay guy trying to peddle a weight-loss app.

In the first episode, it is clear that what little hammed-up tension there is turns on the Hermione Way-Sarah Austin axis. Austin once had a fling with Ben Way, an incident his sister describes several times as "unprofessional."

The show's producers tap liberally into the overgrown-child-as-entrepreneur motif that might ring a bit too familiar to Valley denizens.

Crow is seen coding for long hours in his disheveled man-cave and downing liquor shots when he is let loose at night. The cast is seen heading to a crowded toga party, a familiar sight for, say, Facebook employees, who celebrated with a similar event in 2008.

Then there is the pitch meeting with angel investor Dave McClure, who met Hermione Way when he found her hungover and asleep under his conference table.

McClure gamely listens to a pitch from the Ways and promptly rejects them - but not before dispensing a pearl of startup-pitching wisdom that he likely conceived long before the cameras arrived: "You don't need to sweep me off my feet. You just need to be a good kisser."

Critics say they fear the show will makes startup life seem easy and glamorous while overlooking the endless grind and frequent failures that come before the success.

"The media wants to sell this story that you can come here, spend three days coding in your basement and then succeed overnight, but we learned the hard way it's not like that at all," said Jonathan Chin, the founder of Gothamlist, an e-commerce site in San Francisco that has yet to take off.

Still, he acknowledged, the Bravo program is the talk of the town. "Everybody's been talking about it, tweeting, sending Facebook messages."

Zuckerberg, who is launching her own media company, Zuckerberg Media, this week, said the show accurately captures the experiences of her cast. She said she would continue to roll out "nonfiction" TV productions in the Bay Area.

Zuckerberg sidestepped a question about what her friends and family thought of the show, saying only that no one close to her, including her husband or her brother Mark, have seen it yet.

"It's like doing a startup," she said. "At some point you just have to open up the alpha and let people see it."

'IT'S TV'

At the show's premiere party on Sunday night in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood, there were few Valley luminaries to be seen but plenty of young men in slim-cut suits and designer stubble and women in gauzy gowns and stilettos. They noshed on pizzas served on vinyl records and crispy cones of kampachi tartare that came perched in the holes of DVD discs - along with slabs of sushi served on iPads, an idea conceived by Zuckerberg's production team, said caterer Joshua Charles.

"The party seemed reminiscent of 1999," said Brooke Hammerling, a veteran tech industry public-relations executive who is based in New York. "None of those on the program, including Randi, were in the tech world in the first generation of the dot-com world, when we saw the lack of awareness of what was going on around us."

Hammerling feared the women in the show would be portrayed as stereotypes, more concerned about fashion and socializing than the business of technology.

But Hermione Way made no apologies on Sunday night as she swept into the party clad in a glittery gold dress.

"It's TV. People want to look at glamorous people, so it was a balance of finding the tech and being entertaining enough to look at," Way told Reuters.

"I'm a 27-year-old single girl," she added. "Do I like to party? Yeah. Do I like to look really f-ing hot? Yeah."

Way said she was focused on bringing her fitness app and the hardware accessory to market.

And after that?

"World domination," she replied without skipping a beat.

That, or 15 minutes of "Bravo-lebrity," at least.

(Reporting By Gerry Shih. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Douglas Royalty)

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