US gets reality TV – and loses touch with reality

Despite their cool reaction to Big Brother, Americans seem just as obsessed as us by ‘reality TV’, not least the castaway series Survivor

While the UK is gripped by the antics of Big Brother, it is a different story across the Atlantic. The US version – despite being significantly more generous than the one in the UK, with a prize of $500,000 (&£357,000) for the last house guest – has been anything but big and has elicited little emotion and still fewer viewers. The show has been so badly received that the producers were panicked into offering $50,000 if one of the guests would leave, so they could be replaced by Beth, a self-confessed bitch and “sexpot”.

Not only did all the residents turn down the cash, but they vowed to stage a group walk-out as a way of getting back at the programme makers. It appears that the rebellion, which is by far the most interesting event of the 68 days, has now been quashed, but the producers were apparently terrified of losing two weeks of six-day-a-week programming, not to mention face. It must have made US programmers think twice about buying TV formulas from Europe in the naive belief that they could duplicate the success of Who wants to be a Millionaire?, which continues to pull in more than 20 million Americans a show.

With the fragmentation of US television audiences (nearly all viewers have access to at least 98 channels), networks are desperate to create what is called “appointment TV” – meaning loyal viewers will not let anything stand between them and the latest episode of their favourite programme. The show that captured the American imagination over the summer was Survivor, whose final episode gained the second highest ratings in US history. Some 72 million Americans tuned in to see which of the final four contestants would walk away with the $1m prize money that was at stake. Sixteen Americans were put on a deserted island off the coast of Borneo and filmed 24-hours-a-day as they practised Machiavellian survivalism, in an attempt to outplay and outlast the 15 others.

Castaways were initially split into two tribes and had to compete in physical challenges to win food and gain immunity from having to vote a member of their tribe off the island. Delicacies enjoyed by those who did not win food included roasted rat, barbecued snake, dog food and live larvae. This menu, along with the scheming and treachery that ensued, made for compelling viewing.

Corporate sponsors of the show – including Reebok, Dr Scholl and Bud Light, whose brand names were often linked with the challenges – were delighted with the ratings, as the show averaged 23 million viewers each week. A 30-second ad slot at the time of the final show would normally cost $80,000, but the ratings meant that this was raised to $600,000. The 16 participants (who ranged from a 20-year-old student to a 72-year-old ex-navy seal) have all become celebrities and are now picking up endorsements and TV jobs with the ease of seasoned professionals.

America seems to be obsessed with all things survivalist – one of the top-selling books in the US is The Worst Case Scenario Handbook, which is subtitled ‘How to escape from quicksand, wrestle an alligator, break down a door, land a plane’. Suburban America must be yearning for adventure.

The second series of Survivor, which was the brainchild of Mark Burnett, a former British army officer who also founded the adventure travel company Eco-Challenge, is being made in the arguably even more unforgiving terrain of the Australian Outback and is already being eagerly anticipated by viewers and sponsors alike.

Burnett is a man whose reality programming ambitions seem to know no boundaries – not even the final frontier. He has convinced America’s National Broadcasting Company to spend upwards of $40 million on a new reality series called Destination Mir which, if all goes according to plan, will end in one contestant going on a real mission to the space station.

Burnett has secured a space on a Russian rocket through the MirCorp and really believes in what he calls “the privatisation of space”. The premise, according to Burnett, is “a bunch of ordinary people attempting to do something extraordinary”. Thankfully it will be Russian experts at the space camp who kick a contestant off each week rather than the audience or the rest of the group.

Trend-spotters last year were fond of saying that “staying in is the new going out”. Certainly with US Internet companies Kozmo and Urbanfetch fighting it out to capture the home-delivery market, promising everything from hi-fis to rental videos and bagels delivered to your door within an hour of clicking the mouse, staying in has never been more tempting. “Reality” programming seems to be here to stay and has been further fuelled in the US by the fact that the networks are facing simultaneous strikes by actors and the screenwriters unions.

Reality TV requires neither actors nor writers, and this is sometimes painfully evident in the banality of the resulting programmes. However, the spoils of success are high and can come at a relatively low cost. Here in the US we are being promised shows such as Chains of Love, in which a woman is chained to five men 24-hours-a-day, and each week she votes one guy off the chain until she is left with the one she would most like to date.

MTV is also about to start a show called Fear. “Six people, one condemned prisoner – this is entirely real,” says the strapline on a trailer that looks like The Blair Witch Project revisited. There are also rumours doing the rounds about a show where contestants have to make their way across America and the audience is encouraged to capture them – interactive TV at its best perhaps? If the show is gripping enough, viewers seem prepared to make that appointment to stay in, order ice cream over the Internet and sample other peoples’ lives and emotions vicariously, rather than go out and risk living for themselves.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive who is now working as a freelance writer in New York

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