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Ranking 'reality'

Despite critical barbs, this fall's TV schedule includes plenty of new reality series. Which ones are most likely to draw the young audiences networks lust for?

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 3, 2001


It's something TV critics are fond of saying when it comes to exploitive, unscripted "reality TV" series such as Fear Factor or Big Brother, almost like a prayer:

When somebody gets killed on one of these shows, then finally they'll stop making them.

But Mike Darnell, head of alternative programming for the Fox network and the mind behind such classics as Temptation Island, Busted on the Job and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, says it's all about the timing.

"I think we've got a year or two," Darnell said in July, standing outside a press conference in Pasadena, Calif., for Fox's slate of fall reality shows, including Love Cruise and Temptation Island 2. "If we can go that long without someone getting killed on a show, then it's much harder to blame the genre. After two years, I don't think anything will stop (these shows)."

That's jarring news for those who bemoan the parade of stunts on NBC's Fear Factor or the empty personalities on CBS' tribute to cabin fever, Big Brother.

And there's more to come. This fall, viewers will see well over a dozen new reality TV efforts, from sequels to CBS' Survivor, Fox's Temptation Island and ABC's The Mole to the WB's Elimidate Deluxe, USA Network's Combat Missions and Pax's revival of Candid Camera.

The deluge starts Wednesday, with the premiere of two travelog-type reality projects: NBC's Lost and CBS' The Amazing Race. Nearly a week later, on Sept. 11, Fox's Love Cruise sets sail.

Such debuts rarely go unchallenged, so CBS has scheduled a special edition of Big Brother 2 to air at 8 p.m. Wednesday against Lost, and NBC will present a new episode of Fear Factor at 9 p.m. to blunt The Amazing Race's appearance. ("Payback is hell," NBC Entertainment head Jeff Zucker told the trade magazine Variety; the peacock network fired the first shot by scheduling its Fear Factor episode against Amazing Race.)

To be sure, the genre has taken some knocks recently. Allegations of rigged action and producer tampering have dogged UPN's Manhunt and CBS' Survivor, while Big Brother 2 producers scrambled in July after contestant Justin Sebik held a knife to the throat of a fellow houseguest in a bizarre make-out ritual -- forcing his ejection.

And though youth-obsessed networks are drawn to reality TV by the young viewership such shows provide, producers say they can make similar programs for viewers of any age, provided a network is willing to foot the bill.

"We pitched (NBC) a Golden Girls-style version of The Real World," says Mary-Ellis Bunim of Bunim-Murray Productions, the company that created MTV's Real World, in which a group of attractive teens and twentysomethings share a house for several weeks.

"We figured you get to a point later in life where you don't care what you say, you're completely independent, you have a little discretionary money and it would be fun," added Murray, 55, who brought the idea to executive Jamie Tarses not long after she'd championed Friends at NBC. "(Tarses) was just silent through the pitch, looked at us and said, "Are you crazy?' "

So, for now, reality TV is geared to younger minds. And it works.

Despite its well-received new shows such as Boston Public and Dark Angel last year, Fox's top-rated series last season was the highly criticized Temptation Island. (Darnell says such controversy is actually essential to the success of blockbuster reality programs these days, helping turn new series into mass media events.)

After two weeks of grilling network executives and producers on reality TV issues in July, this critic can report a few general findings:

Network executives know there's an element of dice-rolling in reality TV -- background checks or no, who really knows what will happen when you put a bunch of strangers together under stress? -- but the ratings are too high to stay out of the game.

As highly produced shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race raise expectations, networks are finding reality series aren't as cheap as they once were, especially since they don't do well in reruns.

Diminishing grand prizes -- $100,000 for Lost and $200,000 for Love Cruise, compared with $1-million for Survivor and The Amazing Race -- show how penny-pinching networks have lowered the price for contestants' dignity.

Sometimes casting for dysfunction is as important as screening against it.

Executives don't even want to talk about how badly people of color do on their reality shows (not one minority person has won a Survivor or Big Brother-style reality game show, and often the people of color are the loudest, most combative and most stereotypical characters). But, as a critic pal once said to me, considering how awful most reality shows are, do you really want to see more people of color on them, anyway?

Viewers raised on MTV and HBO have a lot less trouble with exploitive reality TV programs than pundits, TV critics and politicians raised on Ed Sullivan and The Brady Bunch.

With that in mind, I've created a thumbnail analysis of the reality shows coming to TV this week and next, rating each for its sleaze factor, sexual appeal and chances for success.

After reading this, you may not have to bother watching these shows at all. I hope.

Lost (airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on WFLA-Ch. 8, starting this week)

Premise: Six Americans are divided into three teams of two, dropped in an undisclosed location somewhere on the globe and given limited resources to reach the Statue of Liberty. First team to get there wins $100,000 and a new Mercury car (ain't product placement grand?).

Sex appeal: All the participants are predictably buff, including a former beauty queen and a makeup artist. Of course, after a few days of stumbling around in the arid wilderness where the show begins, nobody's looking very bootylicious.

Sleaze factor: Low -- mostly because the race element keeps everybody moving too fast for demeaning high jinks.

Richard Hatch award for most annoyingly ruthless contestant: Carla, an abrasive, braided Massachusetts girl who won't even speak to people on the other teams (watch her for a few minutes and you may decide her opponents got off easy).

Will it work?: In a word: boorriing. Turns out watching six clueless Americans stumble through a foreign wasteland for an hour isn't nearly as compelling as you might think.

The Amazing Race (airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on WTSP-Ch. 10, starting this week)

Premise: Eleven pairs of Americans with personal ties -- from marriage to romance to friendship -- race around the world, using limited resources and clues peppered along the way. First team to the finish line wins $1-million. Sound familiar?

Sex appeal: There's a much wider range of contestants here, from a pair of bald fraternity brothers (who look like refugees from an Uncle Fester look-alike contest) to a sixtysomething couple married for 40 years. Still, most participants are in the young and slim category.

Sleaze factor: Low. See above.

Richard Hatch award for most annoyingly ruthless contestant: Hyper-competitive Frank, who harangues wife Margarita into bungee jumping and harasses her with such jocklike intensity that you can understand why they've been separated for a year.

Will it work?: With its breathtaking visuals and wide-ranging scope, this show harnesses Survivor's mix of emotion, grand location, competition and strategy better than any other ripoff out there.

Love Cruise (airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on WTVT-Ch. 13, starting Sept. 11)

Premise: Sixteen single men and women head out on a 236-foot sailboat, pairing up to compete in a series of physical and mental trials that test their chemistry. Every third day, each gender votes off one person of the opposite sex and can change partners; the winning couple gets $200,000 and a trip around the world.

Sex appeal: Let's see . . . a horde of young, camera-friendly contestants hang out on a boat where they do nothing but swim, sunbathe, make out and talk about sex for weeks. What do you think?

Sleaze factor: High. You just know somebody's hooking up before this series ends.

Richard Hatch award for most annoyingly ruthless contestant: Split between Toni, a surgically augmented blond who resents how the other women keep sniping about her, um, enhancements, and neurotic blond Gina, who hates Toni for scooping up the guy she wanted.

Will it work?: Probably. This setting perfectly mimics the inanities of high school dating -- the blonds and jocks rule, and the geeks get pushed to the sidelines (in a particularly heartbreaking moment early on, the women all flock to the tanned athletic guys while the charming Jewish lawyer and black guy are left alone). Expect the Jackass demographic to eat this one up with a spoon.

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