U.K.’s reality train keeps rolling along

TV format's longevity, ratings lessen fad factor

LONDON — Although the latest installment of “Big Brother” failed to match the impact of the previous three, the mania for reality TV continues to snowball in the U.K.

“Call it reality TV, call it factual entertainment, but this stuff isn’t just going to disappear,” says Alex Graham, chief executive of London independent production company Wall to Wall.

To describe it as a fad is to miss the point.

“It’s a new kind of TV, enabled by technology and watched by an audience that is drowning in visual information about the world,” Graham says. “The audience is very demanding and always looking for new twists in plot and narrative.”

This theory may sound overblown in order to give respectability to a type of TV that many documentary makers regard as more ephemeral than a packet of Kleenex.

At Mipcom, Graham will unveil shows that confirm his belief that far from having peaked in popularity, factual entertainment formats are continuing to make waves.

“Twenty years ago ‘Five Things I Hate About You’ (featuring couples identifying what irritates them about their partners) would have been a studio-based gameshow,” reckons Graham.

“Now, thanks to the advances in technology, we can wire up a house and give digital cameras to the participants and find out much more about the people involved.”

Channel 4’s CEO Mark Thompson endorses this view. Despite the recent disappointment of the once all-conquering “Big Brother” — aired by C4 since 1999 — Thompson thinks that there is still plenty of mileage left in the genre.

“I am not one of those people who think reality TV is on the way out,” he says. “We are finding, even in 2003, we can come up with programs like ‘How Clean Is Your House,’ which feel very fresh.”

New business models are being created to accommodate the evolution in reality TV.

C4 is one of the partners in a four-way co-production, financed by mobile phone giant Nokia, which puts 20 budding fashion designers together in a house in Rome.

Provisionally entitled “Fashion House,” the participants will compete to stay in the house by designing a fashion item.

Whoever creates the least successful design — voted on by viewers — will be evicted.

The show is produced by the U.K.’s Lion Television. Managing director Jeremy Mills says, “As this program shows, the demise of reality TV is exaggerated. Real people are still interested in real people, but for a show to break you need something that has a twist.”

Alan Boyd, CEO of U.K. Production at Fremantle Media, suggests that hybrid formats are taking over to prevent burn out.

“After the initial surge of reality shows you’re now seeing a lot of hybrids: reality drama, reality soaps, reality sport and reality comedy,” he says.

“Perhaps you take the skill of ‘Pop Idol’ and use it as a basis for a new program about politics.”

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