"Jersey Shore" ends its fifth season Thursday on MTV with no renewal for a sixth season in sight and hard-partying star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi pregnant. Sagging ratings, and the network's failure to renew the show yet, suggest the clocking is finally ticking down on the reality TV franchise critics love to hate.
Can Snooki — arguably the show's biggest breakout — extend her own tenuous grasp on fame with a bun in the oven? Does she have the potential to remake herself, and even expand her brand, in the vein of reality TV mamas like Tori Spelling, Nicole Richie and Bethenny Frankel?
First, Snooki wanted to star in a spin-off dating series called "Snookin' for Love." Later this year, she will co-star with "Shore" castmate Jenni Farley in the "Laverne & Shirley"-ish spin-off "Snooki and JWoww vs. The World." That MTV show, currently filming in Jersey City, is the second "Shore" spinoff to "The Pauly D Project," debuting later this month.
Also read: Could Snooki's Pregnancy End 'Jersey Shore'?
But in the US Weekly cover story in which she officially announced her mama-to-be status and engagement to Jionni LaValle, Polizzi told the magazine she now wants to star in a family series, "like Tori and (husband) Dean (McDermott)."
Unlikely? Sure, we've seen her fall-down drunk on the beach, flash her ladyparts at fellow clubbers in Italy and discuss all her bodily functions in graphic detail, all behaviors that would suggest she's hardly mother of the year material.
But, as much as reality TV fans love a great hot mess story, they love a makeover tale even more.
Take the woman Polizzi aspires to be, Tori Spelling. In the space of less than two years between 2004-2006, Spelling married Charlie Shanian, began an on-set affair with then-married co-star Dean McDermott, divorced Shanian and married the subsequently divorced McDermott. They soon began their own family, which has resulted in three Oxygen reality series and three books, including the bestselling "Mommywood," penned by Spelling.
Likewise, Nicole Richie was known as the wild child BFF of her equally notorious reality TV co-star Paris Hilton until she traded the party girl life for motherhood in 2008, and Bethenny Frankel was a popular, but still ensemble cast member of the "Real Housewives of New York City" until she became a mommy in 2010 and spun off into solo Bravo reality series, "Bethenny Getting Married?" and "Bethenny Ever After."
Besides, we should all remember that — gasp — perhaps certain personas and behaviors we witness on reality TV are exaggerated for maximum shock value.
"I think she has the right to raise her kid how she wants," said Howard Bragman, longtime Hollywood publicist and Vice-Chairman of Reputation.com. "Does that mean she's going to get endorsement deals and be the hero of the mommy bloggers? That remains to be seen. But I've seen people turn their lives around. Look at Nicole Richie."
The key for Polizzi is deftly managing how she moves forward in pursuit of new opportunities. "It takes a certain amount of fame to change the direction," said Bragman, the author of the fame, branding and publicity how-to book "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" "But also understand that that ship she's on has been traveling very rapidly in one direction, and it's hard to turn it midstream. And we don't want to lose what made Snooki Snooki … her style choices, her bigger than life personality."
For its part, MTV has wished the pint-sized star well in her impending maternity. "We support her as she starts this new chapter of her life," it said last week. MTV had no additional comment for this story.
Snooki definitely needs to pull off some makeover magic on her lifestyle if she does want to keep that reality TV and endorsement money rolling in. "Jersey Shore" ratings are down — season five premiered to 7.6 million viewers and last week's new episode (the first to air since Polizzi's pregnancy announcement) drew 4.8 million viewers, the show's lowest ratings of the season.
And Polizzi's Q scores, the numbers that indicate how well-liked a celebrity is — or is this case, isn't — are even lower. Snooki's positive Q score is 10. Her negative Q score, i.e. the number of people who rate her as fair or poor: 70.
Based on the 76 reality TV personalities the Q Scores company tracks, the average positive score in the category is 18, and the average negative score is 32. The aforementioned Frankel gets a 20 positive and 49 negative, and Polizzi's "Shore" co-star Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino has positive nine, negative score of 66.
"What you have is that people are not liking these major players," said Q Scores president Steve Levitt. "They're watching the shows for other reasons."
He pointed out that reality stars like Polizzi are famous for notorious behavior. "People want to look into their lives to see what they're doing now, but that's not the same as having a good feeling for them," Levitt said.
So what, specifically, can Polizzi do to make her Tori Spelling dreams come true?
"Respect," Bragman said. "Respecting the law, respecting herself, respecting her child."
He said people will be watching what she does after having the baby to see whether she is "going to turn into a New Jersey housewife, basically."
New Jersey housewife … "Real Housewives of New Jersey" … do we smell crossover potential here?