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Americans Captivated by 'Reality Television' - 2003-01-18

Americans have been captivated by a new kind of entertainment called "reality television." More than two dozen reality shows are on the air so far, and more are in the works.

Each week, ordinary people appear in unusual situations, trying to win $1 million, going out on a date with a stranger, or displaying their abilities in on-air talent shows.

"OK, thank you, Chip. Your audition was very, very corny."

American Idol's Simon Cowell, a London-based music producer, tells VOA the program searches for talented singers, awarding the best with a recording contract. A judge on the program, Mr. Cowell produces a similar show in Britain called Pop Idol, and says he's never shy about bursting anyone's bubble. In fact, he's brutally honest. "I've been doing auditions for 25 years, and the nature of auditions are to tell the truth. And unfortunately, most people who turn up are dreadful," he says. "And I tell them."

The reality series Survivor watches ordinary people as they struggle to survive under harsh conditions. Last season, contestants were left on a tropical island in Thailand. Winner Brian Heidik says the show was about sleep deprivation, lack of food - and patience.

Contestants face challenges from nature and from their fellow contestants, who winnow their numbers by voting people one by one off the island. The winner, in this case Mr. Heidik, receives $1 million. A car salesman with a gift for persuasion, he says he started with a strategy to outwit other contestants. "I'm going to control your mind, I'm going to manipulate your emotions, but I'm going to have a good time doing it," he says. "See, most people forget why they're out there. I kind of stuck to a plan. I reaffirmed to myself every day way I was there :the money, the money, the money, the money."

Executive producer Mark Burnett says Survivor has a loyal following of 20 million viewers because the series, in his opinion, is just as engaging as a movie. "It's a vicarious travel experience, compelling characters, and good story telling. It's not stunt TV," he says.

Survivor will soon enter its sixth season with contestants left to fend for themselves in the Brazilian Amazon.

Mr. Burnett says the show has been seen in 100 countries and is starting to influence popular culture. "While I was in Thailand, old editions were airing there," he says. "Then I was travelling in Fiji in remote villages, people were coming up to me and saying, ah, you're the Survivor guy. And the lexicon, "vote me out of the tribe" or "vote him off," has become such a classic vernacular, it's amazing what TV can do."

Reality show producers says the secret of their success is creating drama.

Mike Fleiss produces several reality series, including The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, which track the dating adventures of a single man and woman. "These shows are all pretty tightly edited because you shoot round the clock, in the case of the Bachelor show, for seven weeks," he says. "So we end up with 700 hours of tape, and we only make seven hours of it. So we're boiling it down pretty thoroughly."

For Paul Smith, producer of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, drama is created as ordinary people answer a series of questions, with the ultimate chance of winning one million dollars.

"Ready to play?"
"All right. Let's play "Millionaire."

Mr. Smith says the program is like an old-time quiz show, but the stakes are higher. The series debuted in Britain in 1998 and first aired in the United States one year later. With many versions worldwide, it is licensed in 100 countries. "The advertising says, "You can win a million …," whatever it might be, dollars in the U.S., pounds [in Britain], or if you happen to be in Italy, several billion lira as the top prize," he says. "That may be what attracts people to the show initially. But what it is, it's a very purist quiz show, which requires the contestant to answer 15 questions. And if they do, they win the top prize."

Contestants make difficult choices, building the tension: should they ask for more information? They can get help from the audience once, and once can get help from a friend. But should they do it early, when the questions are easy, or later, when they are hard? The choices of each contestant create the drama.

More than two-dozen shows featuring ordinary people are on television now.

Some, like the series Joe Millionaire, have been criticized as ethically questionable. The series features a man who has supposedly inherited $50 million. The women he dates do not know that he is in fact a construction worker with a modest income.

"The most talked-about show of the year, 'Joe Millionaire.' And it all starts right now."

The series was shot in advance of airing, so producers were able to keep the truth from the women until production was finished.

Television executive Kevin Reilly is puzzled as to why these programs are so popular. "Damned if I know," he says.

Mr. Reilly, the head of the FX cable network, says the shows are addictive once viewers start watching them. In fact, he's an addict himself and says reality television is a change from the tradition of scripted dramas and comedies. "These are fresh, they're spontaneous, they're cultural events that everyone seems that they're just tapping into together," he says.

Mr. Reilly's FX network has its own reality show in the works. Called American Candidate, it will feature ordinary people who want to run for U.S. president. Scheduled to air in 2004, potential candidates are already sending in applications. "I don't know if they're qualified to be president, but these are people with something to say and actual credentials to back it up, and I'm sure a lot of nuts, too," says Mr. Reilly.

The focus on ordinary people has, ironically, created a new slate of celebrities. Kelly Clarkson, last season's winner on American Idol, has gone on to pursue a recording career as a professional singer. Contestants on Survivor have become media personalities in their own right.

Winner Brian Heidik, who had done some acting before, says talks are underway with people in Hollywood about appearances on television, including one on a children's program. "Of course, Sesame Street for the kids. And some commercial work as well. So I do have a few things out there which we're moving forward on," he says. "It's just a matter of finding of what Brian's going to be on first."

Producers say reality television runs the danger of getting stale as one show copies another, or of repelling viewers as programmers create ever-more outrageous situations. One notorious episode of the series Fear Factor drew industry criticism for asking contestants to eat horse rectum. But TV executives say that, at least for now, viewers can't get their fill of the new reality shows and more new ones are likely.

"Just when you think 'Fear Factor' has gone too far, they go further!