Overseas, reality takes on new forms

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Creators of reality-based TV and game shows are sending more programs that are hits at home around the globe in search of viewers and advertisers, while the local flops quietly disappear. * What's working best now that the reality format has become familiar? Many story lines resemble "Survivor," the brightest star of the reality galaxy, with an emphasis on endurance and craftiness of contestants dumped into a hostile environment that doesn't have to be the Australian outback, but can be a taxicab company, a radio station or a bar. Tempting weight-challenged Europeans also has its allure. And you have to keep the cameras rolling, often 24 hours a day. But you can probably forget competitions in which contestants try to break out of a high-security prison.

A growing number of the programs that are selling briskly internationally pit contestants against one another other in unfamiliar real-world jobs. Take "Taxi Orange," created by Austrian TV network ORF and first broadcast for 77 days starting last September. The 13 contestants, ages 21 to 30, were filmed 24 hours a day as they drove genuine passengers around Vienna in five orange cars made by Volkswagen's Seat, and lived together in a modest three-bedroom, one-bathroom house.

LOST CABBIES

When the amateur cabbies got lost, passengers often chipped in with directions-and got to see themselves on the nightly program and 24-hour-a-day Webcast (taxiorange.orf.at). Viewers voted for their favorite contestant, who had to decide who would be expelled that week. The winner took home 1 million Austrian schillings, or about $63,000.

Car sales have soared due to "Taxi Orange," says Josef Ballmann, marketing manager of Seat dealer Allmobil. He provided the cars free and paid almost $50,000 for a Seat banner ad and links to and from the Web site, which has registered 80 million page views. His company also participated in selling "Taxi Orange" merchandise and a contest to guess the program's winner.

"We have definitely profited from the new image and raised people's awareness about our cars," Mr. Ballmann says. His counterpart in Germany is negotiating a similar role in the "Taxi Orange" series to premiere on German TV channel SAT 1 this fall.

The concept also aired in Turkey, where it ran afoul of the nation's TV watchdog.

In Sweden, reality has come to "The Radio." Don't let the title fool you-the show also involves TV and the Internet. Contestants have been creating their own 2-hour radio show on Radio City, a Swedish commercial station. The making of the radio show-plus footage of the contestants' personal lives-airs as an hourlong daily TV program on Channel 5 and is Webcast on its Web site.

Divided into Red and Blue squads, each team has to come up with 60 minutes daily of original radio programming. They conduct interviews, host talk shows, read news and sing jingles. Each week, "The Radio's" radio, TV and Internet audiences decide which team has produced the best radio shows. The losing team has to expel a member. The last person left becomes "The Radio Person of the Year" and receives $50,000.

loTs of fans for `radio'

The contestants have become celebrities and the Web site is getting about 10,000 visitors a day.

Developed by Channel 5 and Swedish production company Wegelius Television, "The Radio" is popular with both audiences and sponsors.

"After two major [reality-based] successes with `Big Brother' and `The Bar,' we decided to do a new kind of program where we could add another medium in the mix," says Anders Knave, program director at Channel 5, which also owns Radio City. "It also has many possibilities for cross-promotion between the different media."

For example, OLW, a Swedish snack company, is advertising on the TV, radio and Internet versions of "The Radio."

"The Radio" is too new for international sales, but Sweden already has an international hit with "The Bar," developed by Strix Television, the production company that created the "Expedition: Robinson" format known in the rest of the world as "Survivor."

In the Swedish version of "The Bar," 18 people struggle to run a real Stockholm tavern and restaurant while being filmed 24 hours a day for a daily TV program and continuous Webcast on a Scandinavian portal called Everyday.com.

During "The Bar," customers complain about food, potential romances develop, and staffers stay late struggling to balance the books and figure out cash shortfalls. As usual, TV and Web viewers vote weekly to oust one contender. The winner collects $120,000.

About to start its third season in Sweden, "The Bar" has been sold to networks in five other European countries, Australia and Argentina.

" `The Bar' continues to attract huge interest from both TV channels and production companies on the global TV market," says Anna Borkenhielm, president of Strix Television.

Endemol Entertainment has some new reality shows on Dutch TV. The company that unleashed "Big Brother" on an unsuspecting world has moved beyond people confined in tight spaces to people confined in tight clothes, "Big Brother is Weight-Watching You" and "XX-Large."

HEAVY DUTY

"With Big Brother is Weight-Watching You," 20 men and women weighing at least 16 stone each (224 pounds) are cut off from the rest of the world and are challenged to win $420 for every 2.2 pounds they lose. Temptations include a famous chef preparing a mouth-watering meal in their presence. In "XX-Large," 10 men and women with a combined weight of 197 stone (2,758 pounds) are taken on a survival trip in the Belgian Ardennes. They have to lose 8 stone, combined, in five days to win an exquisite meal. If they fail, they have to walk back to the studio on foot. Endemol's "Big Diet" concept has been sold to a German broadcaster.

Also from Endemol on Dutch TV this year is "TV Hairdresser," in which a team of six hairdressers is followed by camera and Webcams as they chat to their clients. Every few weeks, one hairdresser is "fired" based on the votes of viewers and fellow hairdressers. Their performance is based on the entertainment value they provide in their chat with customers and their skills as hairdressers.

"House of Dreams" is similar to "Big Brother" but features only five young women sharing a dream house in the center of Amsterdam. Watched round the clock by cameras for 26 weeks starting March 7, the show also resembles MTV's "Real World."

The U.K. is a prime source of programming for the U.S. market, like commercial network ITV's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," now a staple on ABC, and the British Broadcasting Corp.'s "Weakest Link." Sarcastic host Anne Robinson and "Weakest Link" have crossed the Pond to find new success in the U.S. on NBC.

Another ITV hit, "Popstars," debuted in January and has been pulling in up to 12 million viewers each week as hundreds of teen-agers auditioned to form a new five-person teen pop band called Hear'say.

T&T Beverages, a U.K. soft-drink marketer, hit the jackpot when it shelled out $3 million to sponsor "Popstars" with a sponsorship campaign including TV commercials by Burkitt DDB, London. Part of the "Popstars" Web site (popstarsonline.net) is sponsored by Amazon.co.uk, which provides a link for young fans to buy books based on the program. "Popstars" has aired in Canada, sponsored by Motorola, and in Australia with Volkswagen as sponsor.

"Whenever we develop formats, we talk to advertisers at the same time as we talk to the broadcasters," says Geoff Brown, London-based CEO of Sportsworld Media Group, joint owner of Five Divas, the company that licenses the "Popstars" format to broadcasters.

TEENS SOAR

A similar concept from Endemol debuted March 5 in the Netherlands. "Star Maker" selected 12 unknown teen musical talents to stay in a specially designed training center. Cameras follow their daily activities as they train to form two new pop groups until their first live performance at a huge stadium.

Seemingly full of gritty reality, but less arresting, was "Jailbreak," which was set inside a high-security prison. In the series that appeared on the U.K.'s Channel 5, contestants formed groups and the first gang to escape won $150,000, but the flight from prison never took off with viewers.

The BBC hit "Castaway" starts a second U.K. season this summer but may be hard to duplicate in countries that lack a wind-whipped Scottish coast. For "Castaway 2000," 36 people, including couples with children, were chosen to live an entire year on the freezing, almost uninhabitable Scottish island of Taransay, where they grew crops, sheared sheep and milked cows. The program was billed as more of a social experiment than a reality show, but ratings took off when the deprived, stressed-out castaways started arguing heatedly and trading accusations of racism and homophobia.

"We're talking to a number of people about selling the format," says Jeremy Mills, executive producer of Lion Television, the show's creator. "However, in a way, this was something only the BBC could do because the [$4 million-plus] costs involved means only a public broadcaster would commit to doing it."

SMALLER `CASTAWAY'

Even so, the BBC is scaling down "Castaway 2001" from a year to just eight weeks. Lion Television starts filming this summer and was deluged by applications from 20,000 wanna-be castaways.

Most of the current crop of reality-based hits started in Europe, but possibly the most bizarre programs come from Japan. One format that Tokyo Broadcasting System is trying to shop to U.S. and European broadcasters is "Future Diary," in which three young people grapple with finding careers and love while trailed by TV cameras. Fuji Television Network, creator of "The Iron Chef," is touting "Love, Love Train," in which a young man riding in a car mounted on rails tries to woo a young woman. She holds a rail-switching device that will either send the boy to her or shuttle him onto another track where a horrible fate awaits him.

Some Japanese TV is too extreme to export easily. Nippon Television Network used impoverished comedians rather than ordinary contestants for "Denpa Shonen" in the mid-1990s. The show dispatched pairs of penniless comedians on intercontinental hitchhiking tours and locked one comedian, naked, in a tiny apartment until he could win $7,250 in free stuff from contests advertised in magazines. A video camera recorded him slowly winning his freedom by entering contests.

Contributing: Juliana Koranteng, London; Pia Grahn Brikell, Stockholm; Michael Leidig, Vienna; Gerard O'Dwyer, Helsinki; Jonathan Herskovitz, Tokyo; Ali Qassim, Buenos Aires.

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