Invasion of the Reality Shows

Dateline: September 13, 2000

The "reality" TV show craze is currently sweeping both sides of the Atlantic with everything from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to Survivor conquering the airwaves. What's next?

Celador Productions in the UK probably had no idea what they were unleashing when they created the quiz show sensation Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? for ITV in 1998. It became an immediate hit, and it wasn't too long before ABC television in the US bought the format, installed Regis Philbin as host, and laughed all the way to the bank. Suddenly every network wanted a reality show, which unfortunately deluged viewers with many forgettable quiz show knockoffs.

But something new was waiting in the wings. European TV companies, sometimes very small and thus apt to try something radical and different, pioneered the concept of taking ordinary folks and making them the stars of the shows by putting them in unusual situations. Holland's Big Brother locked a group of people in a house with cameras monitoring them 24 hours a day while viewers could vote out whomever they chose. Two American producers had an idea about stranding people on a desert island for a series, but before selling it to skeptical US networks, they test-drove the format first in Sweden. It was a huge success, and CBS grabbed the series (originally Expedition Robinson but now retitled Survivor) and conquered America during the summer of 2000. Big Brother also came to the US and Britain, though while a smash hit in Britain, didn't quite achieve the heights in the US achieved earlier by Survivor. The BBC made its own version of Survivor, Castaway 2000, with entire families spending a year living on a remote Scottish island. Being the BBC, it's less a game show (nobody gets voted off, though several participants have left for personal reasons) and more a documentary about their exploits.

Channel 5 has jumped on the bandwagon with Jailbreak, hosted by Red Dwarf's Craig Charles, with contestants attempting to break out of a "prison," with cash prizes for the winners. Survivor creator Mark Burnett's next series for NBC will be Destination Mir, with contestants training at Russia's Star City for a chance to go aboard the orbiting Mir satellite. Future gimmicky series include another European import where a group of men are chained to a woman who eliminates them before deciding which one to go on a date with.

Obviously these shows are cheap to make, popular with audiences, and for the time being, impossible to stop. Eventually this trend will burn itself out and TV will return to shows with professional actors performing from scripts. Meanwhile, don't be surprised by what turns up next.

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