Not so long ago, reality TV revolved around placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations, sitting back to watch the fallout and letting the cameras roll. Not anymore.
The rise of the celebrity-based reality show put an end to that.
Granada’s “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” continues to score for Blighty’s terrestrial web ITV1 and was recently a hit for France’s TF1.
But as producers attempt to conjure up the next “Big Brother” (bigger than ever in key Euro territories like Blighty and Italy last summer) — or find a business-based skein that can out perform “The Apprentice” — development teams are laboring to create high-concept reality shows that can work across domestic and international markets.
“Ultimately, hit shows are all about great ideas,” says Stephen Lambert, chief creative officer of leading British indie RDF Media, whose reality successes include “Wife Swap” and “Scrapheap Challenge.”
“For certain producers it might be tempting to think that in the wake of the recent U.K. success of ‘The Apprentice,’ business must be a fertile subject for factual entertainment, but not all business shows work, as Channel 4 discovered with ‘Risking It,'” Lambert elaborates.
“At RDF, we’re trying to find ways of making reality shows that have more complexity and where celebrities are not expected to appear in a thoroughly unfavorable light. Celebrities are increasingly wary of going into a show that is just about how nasty they can be to one another.”
At Mipcom, RDF’s slate features two new shows that may suggest regular folk are making a comeback in the reality stakes — “Stop Treating Me Like a Kid” and “Ordinary Millionaire.”
In the former, a group of 14-15-year-olds who think they are old enough to fend for themselves move out from under their parents’ care and into a shared house in the English countryside for three months. Will a “Lord of the Flies” situation ensue, or can these teens grow up quickly and keep their lives on track?
“Stop Treating Me Like a Kid” sounds like a new twist on a reality staple — holing up people in a closed environment for a set time frame — but “Ordinary Millionaire” looks like an attempt to raise the reality bar.
In the show, being made for Blighty’s Channel 4, every week a successful entrepreneur who is prepared to give away £40,000 ($72,000) of his own cash is sent to live undercover in a deprived area of the U.K. for 10 days.
At the end of the period, the budding philanthropist has to decide if he has found someone or something that will benefit from his generosity.
“It may be helping somebody find the deposit to buy a house,” Lambert explains. “Or it could be helping to fund a community project. Our society is all about take, take, take, but I think there are a growing number of young people who feel revulsion at an entirely self-seeking, materialistic culture.
“I know that other producers are looking at this area. The difficulty is finding the right format and one that has drama and warmth, but is not too goody-goody,” he adds.
“Ordinary Millionaire” suggests, perhaps, that in troubled times reality shows really are heading away from Mean Street.
Endemol is Europe’s most successful player in the reality game, and among the new formats it will be unveiling at Mipcom is “Only Fools on Horses,” created by Endemol U.K., and a surprise summer hit when it bowed on the BBC in July.
A pun on the veteran Brit comedy “Only Fools and Horses,” the show’s success suggests that celebrity-led reality TV is developing beyond the ritual round of humiliation.
In the show, 12 celebrities were filmed competing in a show-jumping contest, with the winner selected by the audience’s vote.
“Lots of people ride horses, but when you see celebrities doing it with all the drama and jeopardy involved, it becomes entertainment,” opines Mike Morley, Endemol’s senior executive director for creative and commercial affairs.
Morley expects shows that put celebs in situations where they have to acquire skills to become more prevalent.
“We’ve come full circle,” he says. “Nowadays we’re putting extraordinary people in ordinary situations and pushing the talent reality show in formats like ‘Celebrity Circus’ and ‘Only Fools on Horses.'”