They're everywhere, from Buckingham Palace to toy stores. But is MTV's first family in a 'Bourne identity crisis?

Can you remember, way back to six months ago, when you didn’t know anything about Ozzy Osbourne except something about bats and a band called Black Sabbath? Now, thanks to MTV’s all-time highest-rated show, Ozzy and wife Sharon are buddies with George W., have been described as ”loving” by former veep Dan Quayle, and even appeared before Queen Elizabeth for her Golden Jubilee.

That’s not even the half of it. Between talk-show visits, magazine stories (in fact, see a review of Osbourne websites on page 86), and the seventh Ozzfest kicking off July 6, the foul-mouthed family has officially invaded America. And did we mention the woofer-shaking onslaught of more than 100 items of Osbourne kitsch, with the clan set to rake in $10-15 million on current merchandising deals?

But buyers beware: The Osbourne backlash has begun. Bill Cosby and David Bowie both dissed the show in June, Cosby referring to the family as ”a sad case” and Bowie sniffing that Ozzy has ”become this junk culture thing.” And in an admittedly unscientific poll of 100 random people in New York City, just over half said the Osbournes are overexposed, with Kelly cited as the biggest offender — most likely due to her ubiquitous cover of Madonna’s ”Papa Don’t Preach” from The Osbourne Family Album (which debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard charts).

Ever the savvy businesswoman, Sharon declines to comment on her strategy. But to execs at MTV, The Osbournes is the latest example of a fickle MO perfected by such short-lived sensations as Beavis and Butt-head, Singled Out, and Jackass. ”I’ve just come to accept that as a part of the dynamic of MTV,” says entertainment prez Brian Graden, who greenlighted The Osbournes last year and reran the show up to five times per week. ”It’s going to burn as fast as it’s going to burn. Will we ever see first-season numbers again? I don’t know. We can’t stretch it forever.”

These days, the shelf life of any pop-culture phenom appears to be shorter than Ozzy’s attention span. Consider the life cycle of insta-hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, once thought to be the final answer to ABC’s ratings woes. The Regis Philbin-hosted game show’s popularity peaked fast, with episodes running up to four times a week. But ratings plummeted just as quickly, until ABC pulled the plug on the series in May. Millionaire exec producer Michael Davies says networks are smart to cash in right away: ”Many people have said ABC ruined [Millionaire by] overexposing it. But would the show really have lasted 17 years on the network doing those kinds of numbers? Reality shows have replaced the specials business. You can watch it in huge numbers and talk about it with friends and then not see it again for a while.”

Does it pay for Ozzy and Co. to pace themselves until the now-in-production second season airs this fall? Probably not, because reality copycats are already rearing their heads: R&B singer Brandy Norwood recounts her recent pregnancy on MTV, while Anna Nicole Smith’s show debuts in August on E! ”If you don’t get your programs in while you’re hot, the inevitability is you will be copied so much, so quickly, that your programs will lose value anyway,” says Davies. ”We were definitely hurt by the fact that everybody tried to make a game show derivative of [Millionaire].”

The Osbournes
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