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Reality takes swings

Long-running unscripted shows go for twists, turns to keep viewers guessing

Making folks eat bugs for cash or stab their neighbors in the back just ain’t what it used to be.

Five years after TV’s modern reality boom kicked off with “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” producers of long-running unscripted hits find themselves working overtime to invent fresh twists and turns to their games.

That’s why, for example, the latest bunch of lab rats to move into CBS’ “Big Brother” house last week found themselves settling into a lavish new two-story house filled with enough secret rooms, passages and hidden surprises to keep them occupied — and viewers guessing — for weeks to come.

Other unscripted staples are following suit:

  • NBC’s “Fear Factor,” the first modern reality competition skein to make it into off-net syndication, will go interactive with a weekly “Home Invasion” segment. Families who ask for the chance will get the opportunity to perform a crazy stunt for cash.

  • Emmy winner “The Amazing Race” will make its biggest change yet with a family edition featuring teams of four traveling the globe, instead of the usual couples matchups.

  • UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model” is replacing two of its judges, including the Simon Cowell-esque Janice Dickinson.

  • In addition to one of its most exotic locales yet — the ancient ruins of Guatemala — “Survivor” is likely to have a couple of twists this season. True to form, ever-mysterious exec producer Mark Burnett won’t say just yet what they are.

For many reality shows, extreme makeovers aren’t a problem. That’s because a big chunk of the genre seems reserved for flash-in-the-pan attention-getters that hit hard but quickly disappear (think “Joe Millionaire” or MTV’s “Newlyweds”).

Some skeins, however, aspire to have the sort of longevity enjoyed by scripted shows like “Law & Order” or “The Simpsons.” And it turns out that, after several seasons on the air, changing casts or moving to a new location isn’t enough to keep audiences coming back for more.

Burnett says reality producers face the same dilemma as a “writer of series like ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty,’ shows that had serialized elements they had to keep fresh.”

“There are no writers or preordained storylines on ‘Survivor,’ ” he says. “What I’m in the business of is situational drama. I have to come up with the situations that create organic drama.”

Burnett compares it to getting a letter from a loved one every week.

“The envelope and the handwriting are the same, but the letter inside is a new journey every week,” he says. “You’ve got the same framework, but you’ve got new people, new locations and subtle twists that keep people guessing.”

“Fear Factor” exec producer Matt Kunitz says when the show first came on, “People would say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that.’ Now people are used to it, so we’re constantly looking for ways to make the show bigger and badder.”

But reality producers actually have two audiences to serve when thinking up changes: The audience at home — and the casts signed up for their shows.

“These are games. You don’t want it to be predictable,” says Allison Grodner, who is in her fifth season exec producing “Big Brother” with Arnold Shapiro.

“It’s important to have new elements to keep (the cast) on their toes.”

“Amazing Race” co-creator and showrunner Bertram van Munster says he’ll sometimes take “extreme measures” to make sure contestants don’t get too comfortable with a game they think they know from having watched previous editions. Nonetheless, the players “always think they know the game,” he says.

Upping the ante even further for reality producers is the ever-increasing number of unscripted competitors.

“Big Brother’s” Shapiro, for example, notes that for its first two seasons, his show was virtually the only bit of new programming on the major nets during the summer. Now, the Big Four all launch at least three or four unscripted skeins in the off-season.

“In order to distinguish yourself, you need to stand out,” he says. “You just can’t say, ‘We’re back.’ “

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