So real, it's just unreal

You've dumped worms on contestants' faces, so what's next? You make them eat horse entrails - and worse. Ian Burrell reports from Montreux

Nigella, Jamie - most certainly Delia - would turn their noses up, but the latest round of reality-TV stars don't have that option. It's dinner-time, the cameras are rolling and you've got to eat what you are given. Which, in the case of Fear Factor, from the American network NBC, is a plate of horse entrails - or, if you are even more unlucky, a pig's rectum.

Nigella, Jamie - most certainly Delia - would turn their noses up, but the latest round of reality-TV stars don't have that option. It's dinner-time, the cameras are rolling and you've got to eat what you are given. Which, in the case of Fear Factor, from the American network NBC, is a plate of horse entrails - or, if you are even more unlucky, a pig's rectum.

So-called "reality TV" - what does a rectum supper have to do with reality? - is moving into new territory, just as the genre had appeared to win some respectability. Last week, it was given its own award category at the Rose d'Or television festival in Montreux.

Among the nominees for the Montreux award was Russian Wonder, a show made by a Moscow production company which created a bogus company and filmed people entirely without their knowledge as they attended their offices.

Another production being offered to buyers at Montreux was made by Funny-Films Oy, a Finnish company, and entitled Strip Poker. This is "a relaxed late-night peep show for young viewers," the production company declared, "where four contestants [aged 18 and over] play the familiar poker game for five pieces of garment."

It is, however, over in America that the most extreme reality programmes are being made. The ABC network is promising The Will, where relatives compete in a winner-takes-all battle for the contents of granddad's estate. The same network is behind Extreme Makeover, encouraging a group of plastic surgery devotees to battle each other to win nose jobs and breast enhancements.

It might be thought that advertisers would be reluctant to see their upbeat 30-second messages shown in between shots of people eating horse entrails, but the commercial broadcasters say they are not so squeamish. According to a spokesman for Sky TV, which broadcasts Fear Factor in Britain, clients are keen to be seen there - 40 per cent of its viewers are ABC1s, and more than 60 per cent are under 35. "Most advertisers would swim through a pile of maggots themselves to get to the kind of young, upmarket audiences that programmes like Fear Factor deliver," he says.

Jonathan Glazier, formerly the editor of BBC Light Entertainment and now the head of production and development for the UK arm of Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, says the growth in American reality shows in the past year has been remarkable. "They're developing a plethora of reality formats, hundreds of them, and sending them around the world."

Glazier has responsibility for introducing Fox products to Europe and alerting his US colleagues to eye-catching British formats. He says there is little difference between contestants being forced to eat horse innards on American programmes and "British" maggots being dropped on to the face of Danniella Westbrook - a stunt that attracted nine million viewers to I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. "There is an intellectual hypocrisy that creeps in," Glazier says. "The thought is quite abhorrent, but people watch it."

So will we see more extreme entertainment here? Glazier says that broadcasters in Britain are well aware of their "duty of care" to viewers. "Are we going to see a Rollerball on the television in five years' time? Are we going to see public executions? The obvious answer to that is 'No'," he says. "Please God, let's hope not."

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