A kinder, gentler reality TV unfolds

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The camera skims across the landscape, somewhere in the heartland, and zeros in on a Chrysler 300C sedan speeding along the open road. The driver is looking for the next contestant on a cable reality show called "No Opportunity Wasted."

Once found, the participant will get 72 hours and $3,000 credit on a MasterCard to fulfill a far-fetched dream, such as a rocket scientist becoming a rock star for a day.

"Fear Factor" this is not.

Taking a cue from life makeover programs like Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and TLC's "Trading Spaces," Discovery Channel's upcoming "No Opportunity Wasted" is part of a new crop of cable reality programs combining drama, surprise and personal transformations in an atmosphere tailor-made for product placement.

More than a dozen such programs are on the way, promising to improve everything from your garage and your Saturday night party to your job, your physique and your life.


While unscripted programming has exploded on both broadcast and cable, many reality shows have a dark edge, with contestants at risk for being duped or publicly embarrassed. This new subgenre goes the other direction, seeking to empower contestants by making their dreams come true in a can't-lose story line.

Advertisers, often skittish about edgy programming, have been quick to respond to the wave of feel-good reality fare.

Executives at MasterCard and Chrysler Group say the sponsorship of "No Opportunity Wasted," which pushes contestants to challenge themselves and live in the moment, reflects their brand positioning. "It's a popular format, and this is a way to make it constructive," says Jeff Bell, VP-marketing for Chrysler Group's Jeep. "We never want to walk away from a show not feeling good."

While many are rushing to be involved, some brands need not apply. Network executives say they likely wouldn't consider a liquor sponsorship, even though those marketers can and do advertise heavily on cable. Nor would pharmaceuticals get the nod, though the category spends mightily on TV ads.

"You have to say no if it would look like a forced or inappropriate fit," says Amy Baker, VP of Discovery Solutions, a division that puts partnerships together for Discovery Networks.

Other examples in the pipeline include Spike TV's "I Hate My Job," which follows three men who abandon their careers to pursue their dreams; USA Network's "Mutt Makeover" for homely dogs; and VH1's "Flab to Fab," two summer specials in which women get whipped into shape in 90 days-without surgery. The weapons of choice will be nutritionists, trainers and stylists to the stars.

Observers say the new shows about reinventing lives may be a reaction to mean-spirited reality fare or a sign of pressure to be politically correct. In any case, advertisers aren't complaining about the content.

"Wish fulfillment shows are more content-friendly, family-friendly, advertiser-friendly," says Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat USA, New York. "Something humiliating and denigrating isn't as conducive an atmosphere to sell product in."

"We like to be rebellious to a degree, so we decided to stay out of the mean TV premise and do something empowering. It's our way of being contrarian," says Brian Graden, entertainment president-MTV/VH1. MTV was early on the aspirational-reality scene with "Making the Band," which predated the likes of Fox's feel-good "American Idol."

The makeover format lends itself to many areas, Mr. Graden says, from home to social life to career, making it ripe for cable channels that can match it to their brand personality.

But don't expect programs offering grittier reality to die out. Two types of reality shows "are happening concurrently," says Mr. Graden, "and audiences are embracing them both, in some cases."


At Lifetime Television, "How Clean Is Your House?" will follow a couple of British cleaning divas as they work on people's homes. The Food Network will even launch some shows in the subgenre, such as "Kitchen Cops," which sends a SWAT team to redo a homeowner's kitchen, and "Recipe for Success," about people who followed their dreams into the culinary world.

"Advertisers want to be part of a safe environment," says Discovery Solutions' Ms. Baker. "Conflict is OK as long as you're not putting people in a bad situation."

Discovery's TLC is home to "Trading Spaces," one of the forerunners in the feel-good field and a sponsor magnet. The spinoff "Trading Spaces: Family" recently inked a deal with McDonald's Corp. to overhaul the community room in one of its Ronald McDonald House shelters for ill children.

GSN, formerly Game Show Network, percolated the idea in-house for "The American Dream Derby," in which six contestants will train and race thoroughbred horses. The contestants will have a team of professionals to help them, and in the finale, the horses will race one another on a live telecast. The winner gets ownership of all six horses, a contract with a trainer and $250,000 for a new stable.

"It could be an ordinary person who just loves horses and has this dream of owning one," says Rich Cronin, GSN's president-CEO. "Yet they don't have the money, the contacts, the know-how. We'll provide that."

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