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Chances slim on survival of reality TV copycats

Tuesday, January 09, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

It's a classic sitcom scene. Two characters know each other so well they can predict the others' actions.

Sometimes that familiarity manifests itself this way: Character No. 1 is alone in his/her apartment and begins counting aloud, "Three, two, one." On cue, Character No. 2 bursts through the door in a state of agitation.

The relationship between TV networks and observers is similar. Six months ago, "Survivor" became 2000's biggest TV phenomenon. It takes time to get copycat programming into production, but now that time has passed ... Three, two, one: Reality TV returns.

Just as it took the networks six months to get into the game show business following the success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," they're just now getting around to sending in the reality TV clones. Whether or not any of these imitators will come close to equaling the success of "Survivor" we don't yet know, but history says the chances are slim.

ABC beats Fox by one night, premiering "The Mole" (8 tonight) a day before "Temptation Island" (9 p.m. tomorrow) and three days before "Popstars" on The WB (9 p.m. Friday).

In "The Mole," 10 players work as a team completing various adventures (think: MTV's "Road Rules") all while one of them is working to sabotage their efforts. At the end of each hour, the players are given a quiz and the person who knows the least about the Mole is sent packing. In the last episode the Mole will be revealed, and the one remaining player will win $1 million.

ABC didn't send out review tapes of "The Mole," but Fox allowed critics to see the more controversial "Temptation Island."

This "Survivor" clone -- down to the music, tropical setting, cheesy host and trumped-up drama -- takes the cruelest elements of "Survivor" and builds a show around them. It's one thing to compete for a prize and double-cross a teammate, but to betray a lover on national television, well, as one of the cast members of "Temptation Island" puts it, "That's low."

Four unmarried but committed couples who have been together for more than a year (at least one pair has been together for five years) signed up to fly to an island off the coast of Belize where they're separated into two tribes. The four women live in a village with 13 single men. The four guys spend two weeks living with 13 single women.

"Gotta have bait close, I guess," says Andy when the show's set-up is revealed. This is the same guy who compares "Temptation Island" to the Pepsi Challenge, "but you have ladies take the place of the actual soft drink." Classy, huh?

No, wait, it gets classier. Once the couples are on the island, the single women parade past them, much to the chagrin of the four women, who look genuinely hurt by the prospect that their man could wind up leaving them for one of these temptresses. Then the single guys strut past and suddenly the four men aren't smiling so much.

"I'm thinking about my girlfriend doing wild things with another guy, and I'm thinking, whoa, what did I get myself into?" says Kaya.

According to grinning host Mark L. Walberg, "Temptation Island" contestants will answer this question, "Have I found 'the one' or is someone better out there?"

Clairton native YaVonne Brown is one of those temptresses who hopes to be the "something better" for one of the guys. Strangely, though, in the copy of "Temptation Island" provided to critics, Brown's first name is spelled "Yvonne" and her current occupation is listed as "advertising executive." In December she was working at the Hooter's in Monroeville.

There is no cash prize at the end of "Temptation Island," although contestants do receive a stipend. Contestants? It sounds wrong to call people who are participating in the possible destruction of their relationships "contestants," but that's what they are.

As purely lowest-common-denominator programming, "Temptation Island" offers moments of voyeuristic satisfaction. But it's entertainment at the emotional expense of the people who signed up for this show. I don't feel all that badly for them (if they were stupid enough to enlist), but watching real people sob made me want to look away from the TV.

That was especially true during the bloated bonfire segment (this show's Tribal Council) at the end of the second episode. One of the worst scenes in "Survivor" was when Jenna was the only castaway who didn't receive a video from her family. In this episode of "Temptation Island," the guys get to choose whether to record a greeting for their sweethearts. One of them chooses not to.

Where "Survivor" was a guilty pleasure, watching "Temptation Island" results solely in guilt.

The WB's reality efforts are comparatively sweet and good-natured, particularly a special airing Feb. 12 called "Kiss the Bride: The Ultimate Valentine." The one-hour show documents three surprise marriage proposals, after which the couples compete to win a televised wedding.

First up is The WB's "Popstars," which apes ABC's "Making the Band," but instead of chronicling the manufacturing of a boy band, "Popstars" wants to make a girl group.

The premiere episode proves this: Unless you like "Star Search," "Popstars" is as boring as teen pop is bland. Even MTV's "Real World" casting specials are more entertaining.

Sitting through the hour-long first episode is like sitting through auditions for a high school play. There's nothing inherently wrong with high school theater auditions, but they're not televised in prime time for good reason. Only a sadomasochist would want to sit through multiple renditions of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You."

Since only 10 finalists will be flown to Los Angeles before the final cut to five, most of the pretty young things featured this week won't last long enough to become manufactured pop stars. How attached can you get to any of these girls when they become a blur?

Watching the "Popstars" judges is somewhat amusing, only because they try hard to be politically correct, offering pity callbacks to several girls who clearly have no chance. These girls might have good singing voices, but becoming a "Popstar" is obviously more about "the look" than talent. It's clear the slightly overweight girls don't stand a chance, which gives their callbacks a calculated meanness.

"Popstars" executive producer Scott A. Stone would disagree with that assessment.

"We had no body type in mind," he said at a press conference for the series Saturday.

The girls are judged not only by a vocal coach, but also by a choreographer. Music producer David Foster said an "oversized" girl he championed didn't make the cut because of her dance moves.

"I said, 'I've got to have this girl. I don't care what she looks like. She's the best singer I've heard,'" Foster said. Choreographer Travis Payne tossed her out. "Travis said she can't dance a lick. She cannot move. She stands there, can't move, case over."

At UPN, the reality series in development are more macho in keeping with the network's efforts to reach young men. UPN will create "Manhunt," a track-down show from the WWF with amateur adventurers who are hunted and must evade capture. UPN also picked up NBC's dropped "Chains of Love," which features a man shackled to four women (or vice versa) who tosses each potential date off one by one.

UPN president Dean Valentine said reality TV has become a hot property because young viewers are finding it harder to suspend disbelief while watching scripted programs.

"We are finding both in surveys that we take -- and you can kind of note from anecdotal experience of watching your own kids -- they need a greater sense of reality in what they're watching," Valentine said. "We can leave aside the question of how much reality there is in reality, but clearly there's more of it. And they feel it's a more authentic thing than watching another sitcom with hot lights and people coming in and out of the living room door."

Jamie Kellner, CEO of The WB, said TV is cyclical, and right now reality programming is hot and sitcoms are not. Ultimately, he said, reality TV will run its course and sitcoms will return.

But due to a looming strike by writers and actors this summer, the popularity of reality TV, which doesn't require actors or writers, will probably be extended.

"I do think reality television can be far more prolific in terms of its development because of the potential strike," said WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels. "I don't think you would see the networks buying as much without that threat."

The promise of more shows like tawdry "Temptation Island" and pulse-deadening "Popstars"? That's a real threat.

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

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