In ancient Greek tragedy, a 50-strong chorus trailed the cursed protagonist, observing and commenting on his every misfortune. But could an update of this classical format provide the solution to Channel 4's search for the next Big Brother?
The broadcaster yesterday unveiled The Audience, a new reality show in which people place "life-changing decisions" in the hands of a collection of 50 complete strangers.
It's no longer sufficiently "immersive" for viewers to decide "who stays" or "who goes" from the remote comfort of their sofa. Members of this Audience get to spend a week, living, working and arguing with an indecisive person facing a dilemma, before delivering a fully interactive verdict on their lives.
The issues to be "crowdsourced" range from: should I leave my job? Should I start again and move abroad? Should I kick out my troublesome teen? Or should we get married or separate?
Dumping the nannying lifestyle "experts" who clog up screens, the 50 "ordinary men and women, of different ages, backgrounds and experience", will follow the person, or couple, wherever they go – wedged into cramped offices and kitchens, observing them at work, at play and at home.
Sometimes this human ball and chain will simply observe, like the purse-lipped advisers on Lord Sugar's Apprentice. At other times, they will ask questions. Together they will "delve into people's personal circumstances and uncover problems to inform a picture of their lives and how to improve it". At the end of the week, they will give their verdict on the correct path to take. David Glover, the Channel 4 executive who commissioned the series, says: "I used to daydream about what life would be like if one were constantly being followed around by an audience." Psychiatrists say this is common among Channel 4 executives.
Glover continues: "The Garden (the Audience production company that also makes the medical documentary series 24 Hours in A&E) suggested we do it for real, like a golf crowd follows golfers. This series has huge potential and we are now waiting to see how the 'wisdom of the crowd' unfolds." The producers surely know how the series will unfold – with plenty of shouting and crying. In order to deliver the emotional kick of the most successful reality shows, an emotional rollercoaster of "heartache, resistance and personal revelations" is promised as the subjects submit their lives to the unkindness of strangers.
Will there be an audience for The Audience? The ground-breaking Big Brother, which generated £88m of revenue at its peak and ran for 11 series on Channel 4, now plays out to a core audience of two million viewers on Channel 5.
Channel 4 tried to fill the voyeuristic void with Seven Days, a "docu-soap" following Notting Hill's socially diverse residents, which viewers were supposedly able to influence through social media. The show flopped.
Television trends have swung back towards "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries, such as Channel 4's One Born Every Minute and its school series, Educating Essex, which offer heartwarming real-life stories instead of nastiness.
Jonathan Smith, executive producer of The Audience, says: "We're finding during filming that living with an audience of 50 people for a week is an incredibly intense experience. Although they can sometimes be cruel to be kind, they really do want to help – and we're seeing lives change for the better as a result."
Anyone facing a mid-life crisis who wants to place their fate in the hands of a caring, sharing reality television crew is invited to email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0203 465 9073. Although whether you'd find 50 people who'd recommend you do just that remains to be seen.