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Reality check

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[Photo: Fox Broadcasting]
Temptation Island, airing Wednesdays on Fox, features four couples who test their fidelity on a tropical island filled with attractive singles. There are no cash prizes, but the couples decide whether to stay together at the show’s end.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001


Sick of Survivor? Don't care who The Mole is? Not tempted by Temptation Island? Could a flood of reality TV shows set to debut this month kill off viewer interest in the genre?

Just when you thought you'd seen the last Survivor castaway trading quips with Regis or scoring a brief cameo on JAG, the unthinkable happens.

They do another one.

Indeed, a new generation of "reality TV" shows starts flooding onto prime time TV next week, capped by the return of the genre's 800-pound gorilla, CBS' Survivor: The Australian Outback, scheduled for Jan. 28, after the Super Bowl.

Some others on deck:

The Mole (ABC, 8 p.m. Tuesday) centers on a group of 10 contestants facing physical and psychological trials in four countries while competing for up to $1-million. Former ABC News correspondent Anderson Cooper is host (unlike Big Brother's Julie Chen, he had the sense to leave the news department before taking the gig), and one contestant, 23-year-old bartender Henry, is from Florida. The twist: There's a mole, or saboteur, within the group thwarting their progress -- players take a test each week, and the one who knows the least about the mole is ejected from the game. Previous versions have already been successful in Europe.

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[Photo: WB]
Popstars, Fridays on WB, follows a teen-pop girl group -- from cattle call auditions to the selection of five unknowns and their training to record a CD, film a music video and perform a debut concert.
Temptation Island (Fox, 9 p.m. Wednesday) features eight couples spirited to a tropical resort, where they will split up by gender and go on a series of dates with attractive singles. Host is failed talk show guy Mark L. Wahlberg (the "L" prevents confusion with the talented Mark Wahlberg, who starred in Boogie Nights and The Perfect Storm). The twist: Each date is videotaped, and the person's significant other can chose to view selected excerpts. (A commercial featuring a gyrating date prompted one critic to call the show Lapdance Island.) There's no cash prize, but the couples decide whether to stay together at the show's end, kinda like the syndicate show Change of Heart.

Popstars (the WB, 9 p.m. Jan. 12) offers a female version of ABC's Making the Band, outlining the assembly of a teen-pop girl group -- from cattle call auditions drawing thousands of hopeful girls to the selection of five unknowns and their training to record a CD, film a music video and perform a debut concert. A previous version has already produced a No. 1 album and TV series in Australia.

And this is just the beginning.

Are you ready for reality?
Think you've got what it takes to be the next Richard Hatch or "Chickenman" George Boswell?
In all, more than 30 such reality TV series are under development at the major networks for this year -- a deluge of programming in a style critics have already denounced as exploitive, pandering proof of civilization's approaching end.

Inspired by last year's reality blockbusters Survivor, Big Brother and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, this flood could kill off viewer interest the same way a pile of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire ripoffs murdered prime time game shows last January.

But producers insist reality TV is also a cheap, popular genre that attracts the young viewers advertisers covet and prompts the water cooler talk broadcasters die for.

"What we learned (last year) is that reality is here to stay," says Scott Stone of Stone Stanley Productions, which developed Popstars and The Mole. "The generation that grew up on reality -- the MTV/Nickelodeon generation -- have aged to the point where they watch broadcast TV, and they like these shows."

Quicker and cheaper than conventional dramas or comedies, reality TV may become an important Band-Aid for broadcasters coping with this fall's exceptionally lame slate of new shows.

Also, as unions for both actors and writers threaten strikes later this year, such series offer networks the promise of ratings gold without either group.

So far, upcoming projects seem to divide into three categories: adventure/competition, like Survivor and The Mole; relationships, like Temptation Island and teen-oriented fantasies, like Popstars.

But Survivor -- whose finale, with 51.7-million viewers, ensured its status as the most-watched summertime series ever -- casts a long shadow.

"I think most of these shows have about three weeks to prove themselves . . . and if you're not the first, you'd better be better," says Steve Beverly, a professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., who chronicles the state of reality TV through his Game Show Convention Center Web site (http://www.tvgameshows.net).

"If the general response is, "Well, it's not Survivor,' that's going to kill these shows," he adds. "Are viewers going to constantly compare, or will they develop a second or third favorite?"

Some things we do know:

Casting is king.

Would Survivor have been as fun without Rudy's crusty homophobia or Susan's blunt abrasiveness? Wouldn't Big Brother have been a lot cooler if Josh, Curtis or Jamie actually had a personality?

"Rule No. 1: Don't kick out the stripper . . . don't eliminate your best characters early," says veteran reality TV producer Eric Schotz (Guiness World Records Live), in a pointed reference to Big Brother's Jean Jordan -- a former exotic dancer and provocative personality who was the second contestant ejected from the show by viewer vote.

"What works are people you care about . . . people you want to spend weeks with," adds Schotz, who heads LMNO (Leave My Name Off) Productions, currently developing 10 reality programs, including the concept-in-a-title Boot Camp for Fox later this spring.

For his magic mix of 16 contestants, the producer says he combed through 10,000 applicants -- unleashing four hard-nosed drill instructors on his group over eight weeks at Camp Blanding, a National Guard training center near Jacksonville (as on Survivor, one contestant is voted off regularly, but the ejected person can take along another squad member).

His criteria: some charisma, some energy and physical fitness. And even though participants might be savvy enough to want TV exposure, they've got to be clever enough not to show it on camera.

"That's the challenge for the next Survivor," says Schotz. "They're going to have trouble trying to match that (first) cast."

Author Peter Lance -- who saw his deal to co-write a book with Survivor winner Richard Hatch disintegrate amid CBS' ironclad control of Hatch's postshow career -- says producer Mark Burnett got his dream cast by directly manipulating at least one ejection vote, encouraging the group to oust attorney Stacey Stillman.

Lance outlines the tale in The Stingray: Lethal Tactics of the Sole Survivor, a book he wrote using material gathered for Hatch's first aborted publishing project. The writer says Stillman heard from other castaways that Burnett suggested she be voted off, eliminating her as a potential rival for Hatch (as with most Survivor matters, CBS won't comment directly).

Lance says such manipulation highlights the control reality TV producers exert over their shows and the manner in which they exploit contestants.

"They're being shot like actors and cast like actors, but they have no control," he says. "If CBS was a country, (it would) be cited by Amnesty International."

Contestant screening remains a challenge, as news of outstanding arrest warrants for Survivor's Kelly Wiglesworth and the protection order filed against Multi-Millionaire bridegroom Rick Rockwell proved last year.

Fox has hired the risk-management firm Price Waterhouse -- a handy scapegoat if something goes wrong -- while other networks say they've stepped up efforts to ferret out lying candidates.

But even some producers and network executives admit no amount of research can guarantee what will happen once the shows start.

"Of course, there's an X factor," says Mike Darnell, head of alternative programming at Fox. "You just cross your fingers and hope it all comes out okay."

Failure can become success.

Even now, Darnell insists it was no problem.

But back when Multi-Millionaire newlyweds Rockwell and Darva Conger were self-destructing under the media glare, it looked as if the executive behind classics such as Busted on the Job and World's Scariest Police Chases was finished.

"Honestly, my job was never in jeopardy . . . not even close," says Darnell, a fast talker with a gift for spin. "I'm not saying Multi-Millionaire wasn't a public relations failure. But it was a huge ratings success."

Things weren't so cool back in February 2000, when Fox canceled a planned Multi-Millionaire rerun and shelved the concept amid news that Rockwell had two restraining orders in his past.

But more than 22-million people watched Multi-Millionaire's first airing -- suggesting that, when it comes to reality TV, a little controversy might not be a bad thing.

"We overreact to success and we overreact to failure," Darnell says now. "This industry responds to numbers . . . and when you see something getting numbers like Multi-Millionaire, like it or not, it's going to get picked up."

So Fox now has another boatload of reality product in its pipeline, including Boot Camp and Temptation Island -- which, Darnell insists, is "less decadent than you might think" despite advertisements showing attractive, scantily clad contestants lounging in hot tubs and dancing close.

Secrecy builds buzz and ratings.

Survivor built explosive ratings last year by keeping viewers guessing.

So it's no surprise that the network is even more paranoid about keeping details under wraps this time around (one Web site claims CBS didn't even reveal the final winner in Australia, shipping the final ballots back to the U.S. for counting during a live finale episode).

"I can't decide if (the first Survivor's success) has made all this easier or harder," says Jhen Maynard, vice president of alternative series development at CBS, who wouldn't even say how many people at the network know this year's winner. "All we can do is put on the best show we can and hope for the best."

Already, media gadflys are buzzing around the new Survivor, with a host of Web sites displaying aerial photos of the set, naming participants and disclosing other details, none of which CBS will confirm or deny.

Today's reality TV producers have standard tools for maintaining confidentiality -- filming in secret under guard, limiting the circulation of advance footage, trying to keep participants' full names secret, allowing mistaken rumors to proliferate and requiring those close to the production to sign agreements with substantial penalties for blabbing.

"I wake up in the middle of the night, dreaming about how we're going to keep security tight," says Mole producer Scott Stone, confirming that participants face a $10-million penalty if they reveal important details.

"Reality producers all have the same ideas -- (success comes) in the execution of the idea," adds LMNO Productions' Schotz, who jokes that his wife and 9-year-old son don't even know how Boot Camp ends yet. "So there's a lot you just can't reveal beforehand."

Still under development: UPN's Chains of Love (a woman chained to four men who are eliminated one by one); NBC's Destination MIR (now in limbo following news the Russians will scrap their 14-year-old space station); a race around the world on CBS next summer (rumors also persist that the network will present a Big Brother sequel); and The Runner, a show from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in which viewers help find a fugitive (now floundering at ABC amid concerns about the safety of innocent bystanders who could be mistaken for the target).

"The key to these shows is finding something different enough to break through, but familiar enough to be comfortable," adds Stone. "And every one that works provides an opportunity for six more to be attempted."

But an acerbic Paul Sims, Webmaster at Survivorsucks.com, predicts most new reality shows will meet the same fate as the Millionaire game show clones last year.

"The networks are cheap, they have no sense, and most of these shows are nothing but monkey see/monkey do," he says, laughing. "We all know it's going to end badly for most of them."

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