Channel 5 aims to get out of jail with prison game show

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The Independent Online

A unique game show in which 10 "prisoners" race to escape a specially built jail to claim a cash prize was revealed as the jewel in Channel 5's autumn schedule yesterday.

A unique game show in which 10 "prisoners" race to escape a specially built jail to claim a cash prize was revealed as the jewel in Channel 5's autumn schedule yesterday.

A year ago the idea that people might volunteer to go to jail and live under surveillance would have been laughable. But such is the growing passion for reality - or voyeur - TV, that the most likely response now is: how much is the prize money?

Jailbreak, a three-week reality/game show series starting on 5 September, will be hosted six days a week by Ulrika Jonsson and shown round-the-clock on the internet. The first person to escape the Big Brother-style set-up will scoop a £100,000 jackpot.

Channel 5's director of programmes, Dawn Airey, said: " Jailbreak combines two of Britain's television obsessions: it's where reality TV meets the game show." Her next comment was perhaps less accurate. "There's never been anything like it on British television before."

Voyeurism has succeeded chefs and makeover shows as the televisual golden goose. The trend that began with MTV's The Real World, where six students shared a house, has mutated into such British ratings-grabbers as the BBC's Castaway 2000 where 35 men, women and children spend a year on the Scottish island of Taransay in a virgin community, and more recently, Big Brother, where 10 contestants live under 24-hour surveillance for the chance to win £70,000.

Big Brother, a ratings winner for Channel 4, has become something of a national obsession with its contestants' characters, actions and prospects picked over by viewers and the tabloid press. Most attention has been focused on Nick, or "Nasty Nick" as he is now known in tabloid parlance, for providing pantomime villainy in his political machinations to win - witnessed by viewers, but not by the inhabitants of the house.

But voyeur TV is not just a British phenomenon. In the US it is now dominating ratings in the form of Survivor, CBS's answer to the BBC's Castaway, in which 16 people have been marooned on an island in the South China Sea. Last week this achieved record viewing figures, with 28 million people tuning in to see student Colleen Haskell booted off the island.

The psychologist Oliver James thinks the shows are successful because people respond to them on a number of levels. "Firstly, who is going to be the winner? It's like any documentary about competition. Secondly, we've got to know these people and have a relationship with them, the same way that we do in soap operas," he said. "Thirdly, there are different levels at which we can be reading this material, so we're constantly wondering 'is she just saying that because she knows there are cameras outside?' Yesterday, on Big Brother, Tom was clearly trying to drum up interest from the public to stop him being ejected.

"I think there's a fascination for all of us because it's like office politics, life politics, and we're watching people cheating and lying their way forward in life as everybody does."

In Holland, where Big Brother originally sparked a viewing revolution, largely due to the on-screen affair between contestants Bart and Sabine, viewers are now relishing the "confrontational and painful" De Bus, where 11 contestants under 24-hour surveillance compete to stay on a bus, for cash, while viewers vote them off. The critic Ruud Verdonck described the programme as sinking commercial television "to an all-time low". Mr Verdonck is unlikely to be reassured by the formats to come.

In the US, NBC is pursuing Chains of Love, where four men are shackled to one woman, who turns them loose one at a time until she holds the key to one man's heart.

Other concepts that have been pitched to networks include Temptation, where four couples in long-term relationships, but not married, are sent to a Club Med-type resort where "dream dates'' test their fidelity; Love Test, a similar idea except that men and women are sent to separate resorts, and Glass House, in which contestants live in a glass house situated in a public park.

They're cheap, they're multi-media friendly, and they bring in the viewers. But, says Oliver James, the number of new variations may prove the genre's downfall. "I think there's a finite number of these stories that we can get involved in, in the same way that people get involved with characters in soaps. It also depends on how well they're done - and not all are likely to be as good as Big Brother."