100 episodes on, show fills reality niche

Wife Swap,” the successful reality series that first aired on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 in 2003, almost never got to trade its first spouse.

Matthew Frank, managing director of RDF Media Group, which produces and/or distributes the program to more than 160 countries, says the show’s provocative title enticed buyers but initially made participants hesitate about signing on.

“The first question everyone asked was, ‘Do they have to sleep in the same bed together?'” Frank recalls. “We laughed and said, ‘No. There’s a limit as to how far we push it.'”

After convincing early participants that they weren’t creating a reality version of “Swingtown,” Frank says that it was easier to get other families to apply.

“As often is the case when you have difficult-to-cast shows, once they’re on the air and people understand what they’re about, they become easier to cast,” he says. “That’s exactly what happened with ‘Wife Swap.'”

The show’s theme and basic structure — wives/mothers with varying degrees of backgrounds switch households with the other for two weeks so that they and their families can be enlightened — remained the same when the hit program was sold to the U.S. in 2004.

Chris Coelen, now CEO of RDF’s series Stateside division, helped launch “Wife Swap” in the U.S. while he was a partner at United Talent Agency and represented the London-based media group. The concept appealed to him because it differed from other reality shows that were set on deserted islands or in mysterious mansions, in that “Wife Swap” went into people’s actual dwellings.

“I don’t recall that there were many shows (back then) that were taking place in people’s homes,” Coelen says. “It’s a compelling idea, and the show has an incredibly catchy title.”

When selling “Wife Swap” and its format to other countries, RDF finds that the U.S. edition is the more popular version.

“It’s higher-octane,” Frank says. “The pace is faster, the jeopardy seems to be bigger and the families paired are more extreme in terms of their differences.”

Some countries continue to air either the U.S. or U.K. versions of “Wife Swap” in addition to productions of their own. “So there’s a double income stream from that,” Frank says.

Like many reality programs, “Wife Swap” has had its share of imitators, most notably Fox’s “Trading Spouses,” which raced to the air two months prior to the ABC series debut.

“We’ve had ‘Wife Swap’ ripped off in several countries,” Frank says. “(But) we understand how to make it, and (other markets that buy our format) can tap into our knowledge and expertise.”

“Wife Swap,” which began airing in syndication on Lifetime last September, has proved that a reality-based program doesn’t have to offer a monetary prize to draw eyeballs or entice participants.

“The ‘prize’ is what they learn and what they take away from the experience,” says “Wife Swap” executive producer Mike Gamson. “That’s why it’s satisfying.”

Adds Coelen: “Everyone has drama in their lives, but we’re not necessarily driven in those circumstances by a monetary prize. That makes (the show) very real.”

The universal dilemma of family members learning to cope with each other also makes the show a global success.

“We’ve been able to make 100 episodes because of the incredible diversity of families,” says Gamson, “(but) at the core, everyone has the same values — wanting to care for their children to the best of their ability.”

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