Richard Woolfe on Broadcasting

Why reports of the death of reality TV have been greatly exaggerated
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The Independent Online

With the screams dying down and the placards gathering dust, the seventh Big Brother has come to an end after a strong three-month run in the ratings - the talk of newsrooms, offices, pubs and bus-stops up and down the land.

According to several purveyors of doom and gloom, 2006 was supposed to be the final curtain for Big Brother, bringing all the other reality formats down with it. But this bubble, set to burst almost as often as the "celebrity" one, continues to thrive, pulling in viewers and - judging by the press coverage - readers.

So why does this brilliant show continue to deliver, year in, year out? Once the commentators, psychologists and regulators have picked over the bones, what's at the heart of its success?

First, while ours is undoubtedly an industry crammed with creative individuals, when you are as old as I am you realise that little is new in television. The reality genre was around well before Big Brother, and will be for a long time to come.

I started out in television on a little show called That's Life - and, by the way, it is fabulous to see Esther back on our screens this week doing what she does best. One of the innovative features we produced was "Search for a Singing Star", where wannabes would come and sing to a panel that included a little-known record producer by the name of Simon Cowell. We also had show-jumping rabbits, a girl playing the recorder through her nose and ping pong pussy (cats playing table tennis) - glimpses of extraordinary things going on in real life.

Today, this practice has evolved with excellent formats such as Bad Lads Army and The Apprentice; genre-busting, water-cooler shows that evoke emotions in their viewers - be they empathy, shock or rage.

Without coming over all public-service, I do believe that reality shows can educate, inspire and entertain. It is a fact that ballroom-dancing classes have never been so full, as it is that Pete's inclusion and popularity in Big Brother has raised awareness of the issues surrounding Tourette's syndrome. Whether or not you concur with the charges of "producer manipulation" from some critics, the effect is indisputable.

So too is the power of entertainment formats to deliver messages in the way current affairs cannot. At That's Life, we did a feature on the danger of playground surfaces and showcased the problem by dropping a melon on to the hard ground. Within years, concrete had been ripped out and replaced by safe surfaces. The Panorama office was next door to ours - it's doubtful they could have delivered such a powerful story to a broad audience.

But is this a redundant argument? Reality TV's death is inevitable, many cry; that's why we throw celebrities at the genre. But as long as producers have formats that test and offer a new experience, be it to members of the public or celebrities, the genre will continue to flourish.

What is the secret of its success? I passionately believe that the viewer must care, a point that some reality shows have overlooked. The problem with The Farm and Love Island - despite the latter's late rally - is that viewers didn't seem to care what happened to the participants. I, like anyone, chuckled at the casting of The Farm and have occasionally been amazed by the antics of the island "lovers", but somehow it was just not enough.

Mucking out the pigs or luxuriating in a "love shack", the celebrities in these shows stay in their comfort zone and are not fully tested. Love Island was commissioned on the back of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. On paper, it was a smart, logical move. But you can't create another Jordan and Peter Andre story, even if Abi and Lee gave it a good go for a while. If viewers don't care about who they are seeing, they vote with their remote control - and look at the flip side when they do. Although the head screamed Zoë Ball, as a nation we rallied for that blunt, vaguely cumbersome Yorkshireman Darren Gough in Strictly Come Dancing; and, most importantly, several million people had their own personalised, well-reasoned arguments on the merits of each, which they were happy to share with family, friends and colleagues.

At Sky One, we have more than 80 men wanting to be in the final celebrity squad for this year's The Match. For a footie-loving celeb, what could be better than training with a former England manager and playing in front of 50,000 live on TV?

New for our autumn line-up is Cirque de Celebrité - a celebrity can't get much further out of their comfort zone than being live on TV dressed in skin-tight lycra and walking a tightrope, in unforgiving high-definition.

Richard Woolfe is the director of programmes, Sky One, Two and Three

A taste of my own medicine

Next weekend, the great and good of our industry decamp to Edinburgh for our annual bout of navel-gazing at the Television Festival. This year, the organisers of the festival thought it would be a smart idea to give some well-known figures a taste of their own reality medicine. The Apprentice TV Festival Special sees eight media types compete to become Alan Sugar's assistant.

Personally, I can't wait to see the BBC's Jana Bennett and Sky's Sophie Turner-Laing take on Simon Shaps and Peter Salmon. Seeing how they react to Sir Alan's "You're fired" will be worth the entrance money alone. And, of course, my controller interview session is the least of my worries. I can hear the media diary writers sharpening their pencils in anticipation of the Stars in Their Eyes session, where I have foolishly agreed to perform.

Why have I agreed to this madness? Well, what an amazing opportunity to be taken out of my comfort zone and be taught to sing by a top UK vocal coach. I can't sing - and it's an impossible song.

However, I can confirm that all Sky One work is on hold for the next five days in a last-minute bid to prepare myself for the big night on Saturday. I think I'm at a distinct disadvantage as some of my rivals are accomplished singers; Newsnight's Peter Barron is in a media band. So, as the dry ice is pumped around the famous doors, I'll just be honest and say: "Tonight I'm going to be... making a fool of myself."

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