Monday, July 6, 2009

Nice People Don't Have A Prayer

Reality television hit a new low this week. I’m not referring to Big Brother where its dismal ratings seem to be coinciding with the predicted victory of a housemate aptly named Halfwit. No, to view the ultimate in questionable taste you need to travel to Istanbul where they’ve just announced the latest Turkish take on celebrity gameshows. Forget Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing on Ice, the new must-have format has the catchy title Penitents Compete. It features a priest, a rabbi, an imam and a Buddhist monk competing against each other to convert ten atheists.

Hitherto Turkey has not been known for its innovative television concepts, but this latest idea has taken the art form to a new level. The prize for any convert is an all-expenses-paid pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem or Tibet, depending on which religion they’ve chosen. Plus, as the broadcaster proudly points out, at stake is the greatest prize ever offered on a gameshow: belief in God.

In order to avoid cheating (and who wouldn’t be tempted to fake atheism to win a free holiday in a Tibetan monastery), all the contestants are vetted by a “commission of theologians”. Perhaps the producers of Big Brother could steal the idea to lift their flagging fortunes: though I doubt the level of debate could match the current erudite banter between those intellectual heavyweights Lesbian Lisa and glamourpuss Sophie “Dogface” Reade.

Sadly the producers of the Turkish show have missed the underlying point of reality shows: they mustn’t reflect reality at all, or they won’t work. We had no idea what we’d bitten off when a few years ago my development team dreamed up a show called Paradise Hotel and I sold it to a big American network. The idea was that eleven young people go into the most glamorous “hotel” in the world and get bored. That was about it. It was the number one hit on American television all summer long.

There was a twist, of course: all the “guests” hated each other. Now if you go on holiday, chances are you go with some friends you quite like and hope you’re sharing a resort with like-minded people. However the reality show works the other way round. Producers cast people whom they suspect will either detest or want to have sex with each other from the outset. That’s the entire premise of Big Brother, Wife Swap and all the others. The worse thing any would-be contestant can say at the audition is “I get on with people”. The right attitude is “I’m great – anyone who gets in my way will get trampled on”.

It’s all a conspiracy, of course. There is an unholy alliance between the participants and producers of reality shows, from game shows to castaways on desert islands. We need conflict, passion and drama to make ratings: they want to be famous. The rubbish singers on the X-Factor auditions know they’re rubbish, but they want to get on telly, even to have Cowell mock them. So, stick by the rules, play the part you’ve been chosen for and you’ll do well. And the more controversial you are, the more column inches you’ll get in The Sun.

Herein lies the fundamental flaw in the Turkish format. The show will only work if someone gets converted – that must be what the producers are praying for. But if the participants really are atheists, as the broadcaster insists, then the last thing they will want is God, and the lure of a pilgrimage to Mecca is scarcely an incentive. So the only good contestant for the producers will be exactly the sort of person the “commission of theologians” will be trying to weed out. It’ll be interesting to see the ratings.

Mind you, if it’s a hit, next year we’ll all be glued to “Britain’s Got God”. Starring Reverend Simon Cowell of course.


Expat mum said...

I must admit I stopped and thought for a minute when I heard about this new show. Couldn't decide whether to groan or marvel, if only because I can see it parlaying into the American version (complete with snake-handling) in no time.
What I find particularly revolting over here is that there's a dancing competition (which after all, isn't really a reality show, just a competition) with very over-weight people hoping to lose weight through all the exercise. Think about it - we western world inhabitants have so much food, and have the capacity to be so overweight, that we have to come up with various forms of entertainment to help us get back to a normal shape again. It's disgusting.
(Sorry about the rant. I should post about it.)

Tom Gutteridge said...

Yes, our priorities are inside out. That was my point too: your dancing competition is a reality show, because it's not about the competition, but about poking fun at the people taking part. Competitions tend to be fair, but the selection of the contestants is subject to the producers' demands for the right 'mix' of eccentrics and downright weird. Which skews the fairness from the start. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that, as you point out, it reflects what we as society find entertaining. And that's pretty scary.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

They are really not that far from the Victorian freak shows...and of course, the Romans went that one step further with their gladitorial combats...

Tom Gutteridge said...

But for the Victorian freaks, and I guess the Roman gladiators, this was their only option for any kind of employment. Most of the contestants on these shows have day jobs. I wonder what drives them to so expose themselves to ridicule.