Once, television helped us to escape reality. But soon there will be little else but reality to choose from as a new wave of "extreme" game shows hits our screens.
Following the highly successful Big Brother and Popstars, the new programmes will raise the reality stakes even further, seeing "ordinary" contestants fight, flirt, act up and fall out in a ratings war that will take TV entertainment into uncharted territory.
London Weekend Television has even recruited Britain's first "head of reality programming" to co-ordinate the shows. Natalka Znak has been appointed to oversee SoapStars, in which tens of thousands of contestants will audition to appear in an ITV soap.
Ms Znak is also off to Cannes for tomorrow's MipTV trade convention, regarded as the world's largest marketplace for reality TV shows. It is expected to result in hundreds of deals as programme-makers try to satisfy viewers' apparently boundless need for the genre.
The rush to sign up new shows is both accelerating and unprecedented. Television executives were astonished last week when it emerged that Sky had beaten the BBC in a bidding war for Boot Camp, in which contestants are humiliated by drill instructors. "It is absolutely staggering. That would not have happened a year ago," said one executive.
Such programmes are just the beginning. A new wave of shows from America is about to take viewers far beyond the limits of conventional TV entertainment. Combat Missions, invented by former paratrooper and Survivor producer Mark Burnett, is leading the assault. The show will feature former members of US Special Forces playing war games for a prize of up to $500,000, and it is already causing a stir. Some US soldiers have expressed concern that it will reveal military tactics that are supposed to be secret.
US networks are also commissioning a run of ambitious cat-and-mouse "reality-travel" shows. The actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are executive producers for ABC's The Runner, which will track a contestant on a cross-country trip, while viewers become his opponents.
CBS's The Amazing Race will feature 11 teams trekking around the globe to win a $1m prize, and Fox TV's End Game will be a glorified version of a murder weekend.
Television executives are becoming excited by the development of the "real drama" element in such shows, which were labelled "dramality" by Survivor's Mark Burnett. But some insiders are concerned that the hype is out of hand. The American networks, they say, are motivated by the impending screenwriters' and actors' strikes, and are stocking up with non-union reality shows.
But Ms Znak said: "The Americans do things on a grand scale and that is something we've got to learn." Steve Hewlett of Carlton Television is more cautious. "It is a hot marketplace, but most of the new formats will fail," he said. In the meantime, new British reality TV shows continue to stack up. Sky is set to make a British version of Temptation Island, the US show with couples trying to resist barely clad singletons.
ITV is working on the UK version of Survivor, a desert-island game show which was the most successful programme in the US last year. ITV insiders expect it to be the biggest thing on British television this autumn.
The network has also commissioned Pop Idol, in which viewers will choose a pop wannabe. Endemol is developing Bar Wars, in which participants try to run a bar on a Spanish beach. Another company is promoting Single Girls, a fly-on-the-wall Bridget Jones; yet another is launching Search for a Supermodel.
Claudia Rosencrantz, ITV's controller of entertainment, yesterday declared that reality TV "does not have a limited life ... the scope for it is infinite".Reuse content