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.