Unreality TV: The final frontier
Endemol, the company behind 'Big Brother', is pulling out all the stops for its new Channel 4 production. In it, contestants vie to fly to space. The snag? They will be grounded at a military base, victims of probably the biggest hoax ever attempted on TV. Ciar Byrne reports, and reviews the 'highlights' of reality television
Thursday 17 November 2005
It all began five years ago when 10 volunteers moved into a custom-built house cut off from the rest of the world to live under the ever-constant gaze of hidden television cameras.
Big Brother was an instant hit, and its success marked the birth of modern reality television, spawning countless imitators all eager to cash in on the format.
Now, the genre is about to cross the final frontier. Channel 4 is attempting to pull off the biggest hoax in television history: convincing nine contestants that they have travelled into space.
Space Cadets is a prime-time programme that bears an uneasy resemblance to The Truman Show, the film starring Jim Carrey as a man whose entire life, unbeknown to him, is being broadcast to the rest of the world as a never-ending soap opera.
It is possibly the most ambitious project the broadcaster has ever undertaken - and one that could go belly up at any moment if one of the participants rumbles the production team.
The show reflects the evolution of a format that has dominated our screens since the debut of Big Brother, feeding off the public's desire to watch other people dealing with unfamiliar situations and often humiliating themselves.
Figures from Nielsen Media show that reality television accounts for some 60 per cent of all shows which are currently made around the world.
In the UK, reality TV is a vital part of every mainstream channel, with ITV's hit I'm a Celebrity... Get me out of Here its most important show of the year. Peak episodes have pulled in up to 14 million viewers, a feat ITV is no doubt hoping to repeat when the fifth series begins its two-week run on Sunday.
Despite the hype, Space Cadets will not be taking on Ant and Dec in the ratings. Instead, Channel 4 will start screening the show in early December; the celebrities clear out of their jungle hideaway on 3 December.
For 10 days, the channel will televise the contestants as they undergo intensive training in Russia, before being flown 100km (62 miles)above the Earth into near space. Here they will spend five days orbiting the Earth and conducting experiments. Or so they think.
In reality, the nine - joined by three actors whom they believe to be fellow contestants - will be at a disused military base somewhere in the UK and will never leave the ground. The whole process will be filmed live in an unprecedented television event presented by Johnny Vaughan.
The unwitting participants, who were selected for their suggestibility, are currently being kept in a secret location and denied all access to television or newspapers, which would instantly give the game away.
Space Cadets has been one of the best-kept secrets in the television world. Since the programme went into development in March, only a handful of people has known about it.
Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother which is making the show, pretended to be working on a boring-sounding project called The Sitcom Test. But this cover was not enough to prevent rumours flying around curious colleagues which ranged from a spoof in which the tables are turned on the production team to something involving the seven deadly sins up a mountain. Yesterday, their curiosity was satisfied when Channel 4 finally lifted the lid on Space Cadets.
Several months ago, the channel advertised for "thrill seekers" to take part in a new reality TV show. A hundred applicants were invited to London for an interview before being put through a series of psychological tests to ascertain how suggestible they were.
Although the term space cadet is slang for someone who is distracted from reality, Shirley Jones, the show's executive producer, insisted the contestants were "not stupid people".
"Suggestibility is a psychological term that has no link with intelligence or gullibility. People who have a creative mind tend to be quite suggestible. All the tests we did have been done in conjunction with a psychologist," she said.
Anyone with a military background or knowledge of space was instantly ruled out. In the next selection stage, the remaining applicants were taken on an adventure-training course in the Lake District.
The show's producers have spared no expense or attention to detail in their efforts to pull off the huge practical joke - enlisting the talents of the cream of Hollywood's special effects departments to convince the contestants that what they are experiencing is real.
At the start of their journey, the contestants will take off in an aeroplane apparently bound for Russia.
In fact, they will fly in circles over the North Sea for around four hours before landing at the former British military establishment. The flight will take place at night to reduce the chances of them spotting identifiable landmarks.
They will be led to believe that the old military base, which was selected for its unusual and distinctive Soviet-style appearance, is Star City, the Russian centre for space tourism.
The site has been given a complete overhaul with plug sockets, manhole covers and light bulbs exchanged for their Russian counterparts. Food, toilet paper, matches and cigarettes have been imported from Russia and, when the contestants first arrive, they will be greeted by Russian military and taken in convoy through checkpoints.
The training they receive will consist of lectures delivered by actors accompanied by a genuine space expert, in which 80 per cent of the information will be true and 20 per cent fiction. Issues that will be explained to them include the fact they will not be weightless in near space and that, like Sir Richard Branson's space-tourist shuttles, their craft will take off horizontally rather than vertically. A Russian fitness trainer will also take them through their physical paces.
The shuttle itself has been built using a set from the film Space Cowboys, starring Clint Eastwood, which was made from a Nasa blueprint. It consists of three sections - a cockpit, a mid-deck where they will they eat and sleep, and a laboratory, where the team will carry out experiments - some of them authentic, others slightly more wacky.
The cockpit has four windows, which are in reality giant digital screens using graphics three times the resolution of high definition television and better than the visual effects used in The Matrix, capable of recreating hurricanes over Mexico.
To simulate take-off, part of the set has been built on a hydraulic platform and part on "air biscuits" that can bounce and wobble around. The Hollywood-based sound specialist, Dean Andre, has created an immensely powerful noise that will vibrate through the participants' bodies. A genuine astronaut has tested the experience and pronounced it authentic.
The shuttle has been fitted with panels, allowing the production team access. So, for example, if the contestants have been asked to carry out an experiment to see how fast tomatoes rot in space, they can go in overnight and replace the fresh fruit with a rotten one.
Despite the lengths to which the producers have gone, Endemol's chief creative officer, Tim Hincks, admitted that the whole project was fraught with danger. "This is without doubt the riskiest, most exciting project we have ever undertaken as a company. The whole thing could go wrong at any point. They could rumble us and the joke could very much be on us."
Teams have been dispatched to comb the entire military base, as just one British crisp packet could give the game away. Undercover actors will also pretend to be contestants, enabling them to alert the programme-makers if someone becomes suspicious, or to assuage the doubts of their fellow participants.
Only four people, including one actor, will initially be sent into "space". If just one person realises what is really going on, the producers will take them aside and try to convince them to play along. If all three cotton on, a fresh team may be brought in to replace them.
Philip Edgar-Jones, Endemol's entertainment chief, said: "The attention to detail is phenomenal... The whole thing could be blown in one moment. There will be Russian smells - cabbage wafting through the air base... They may twig it in the first 30 seconds of the launch. That's the excitement for us."
The show is also a huge financial gamble for the channel. A spokesperson would not disclose just how much had been spent, but conceded that the final figure would be "in line with what you would expect for such a project". That means several million pounds.
The idea came out of Endemol's comedy production arm Zeppotron, which also made Nathan Barley, a spoof on London's über-trendy Hoxton district, the sketch show Spoons and the Friday night panel show Eight Out of 10 Cats. It was dreamt up when the production team tried to think of the most difficult idea for a television programme imaginable. Zeppetron's creative director, Ben Caudell, came up with the idea of sending contestants in to space.
When everyone agreed this was next to impossible, he suggested an even crazier idea - faking the space mission but trying to convince those taking part that it was real. The inspiration was the Virgin Galactic scheme, Branson's no-frills space flight. In the first step towards mass space tourism, Branson is offering the public £115,000 to take a flight into near space.
Julian Bellamy, head of factual entertainment at Channel 4, admitted that alternative programming had been lined up, in case the show went so badly wrong it had to be pulled altogether. But Mr Bellamy defended the decision to invest millions in such an unpredictable project.
"We all feel this is exactly the sort of thing that Channel 4 should be doing. It's something completely original, it's big and risky and it's genuinely a fun and exciting pre-Christmas treat for everyone. We're going to try to pull off the biggest practical joke in television history," he said.
The only remaining question is: how will the contestants feel when they realise that they have been duped? The makers insist they do not anticipate anyone taking legal action if they feel they have been made a fool of.
Before filming began, the participants were asked to nominate three close family members or friends whom they have trusted to give final consent, all of whom have told Channel 4 they believe their loved ones will see the funny side.
And if they don't, at the end of the show there will be a surprise sweetener of £5,000 for every day they have spent in orbit. How the show ends depends on what happens. In the ideal circumstance that the illusion is sustained and three contestants believe they have genuinely spent the past five days in orbit, the producers are considering sending them out of the craft one by one on a "space walk". When the door opens, instead of finding themselves 100km above the Earth's surface, mum and dad will be there to greet them.
Now the producers just have to cross their fingers that no one decides to fly a helicopter over the military hideout and give the game away.
The future: Space Cadets
In the most ambitious and some might say foolhardy idea to emerge from the reality television genre yet, Channel 4 and the Big Brother creators Endemol are attempting to convince nine unsuspecting contestants that they have travelled 100km above the Earth into near space. Presented by Johnny Vaughan, the show will be shown live in prime time across 10 nights from 7 December.
The returning favourite: I'm a Celebrity
ITV has just unveiled the latest list of celebrities who are venturing into the Australian rainforest for the fifth series of its ratings winner. Presented by cheeky chappies Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, the show has average viewing figures for the third series topping 11 million. Its appeal is based on the interaction of contestants from wildly different walks of life. They are forced to camp out in the jungle, and to win food, they have to undertake "bush tucker trials", which usually involve eating live insects.
The intelligent one: The Apprentice
Fourteen young hopeful businessmen and women competed for a job with Sir Alan Sugar's Amstrad in the British version of the hugely successful US show created by Mark Burnett, in which the final prize was working for the billionaire Donald Trump. In each episode, contestants were divided into teams and set tasks such as selling flowers, reselling items from the Harrods sale and persuading celebrities to auction their services. At the end of each episode, Sir Alan uttered the immortal words "you're fired" to one, before declaring "you're hired" in the finale. Tensions rose and expletives were uttered as hopefuls were whittled down to the feisty Saira Khan, the opinionated Paul Torrisi and Tim Campbell, the former London Underground transport manager, who claimed the trophy.
The talent contest: Fame Academy
Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, pledged that the corporation would stop making reality television programmes after critics panned Fame Academy.
A bunch of wannabe starlets were put in a mansion in north London - where they attracted complaints from the neighbours, quite apart from the viewers.
They were then trained by professional singing coaches, before competing against one another live. The results were frequently tragic and the BBC soon rued the day it decided to cash in on a strain of reality television made popular by ITV's Pop Idol.
The only contestant to have emerged from the show with any credibility is Lemar Obika, whose soulful voice won him a record deal and whose talent was recently recognised at the Mobo awards.
A second series of the show was even more painful. But celebrity versions for Comic Relief starring Jo Brand, Ulrika Jonsson, Adrian Edmondson and Edith Bowman proved surprise hits.
The original: Big Brother
Now in its sixth series, Big Brother, created by Endemol was the show that kick-started the whole reality genre. When the programme hit our screens in 2000, it was billed as a "social experiment". While this may have been true of the first series, the programme has now been turned into a highly commercial venture. From the moment ten contestants entered a purpose-built house in London's docklands (the location has since moved to Elstree) the audience was hooked. The format sold around the world and the clever device of encouraging viewers to call premium rate phone lines to vote to remove people from the house proved a huge money-spinner. The series has created heroes and villains. Jade Goody, who was famed for her idiotic outbursts on the show and branded a "pig" by the tabloids, has since turned the nation's affections around carving out a successful career in the pages of celebrity magazines. Such longevity in the public eye has not been granted to "Nasty" Nick Bateman, who was thrown out of the first series of Big Brother after his housemates discovered he was double-crossing them. Channel 4 would certainly prefer that people forgot the low point of series five when the police were called in following a drunken brawl between housemates.
The ridiculous: The Swan
Across the Atlantic they have embraced the reality genre wholeheartedly. One of the more tragi-comic shows to emerge from the US has been The Swan, hosted by Amanda Byram. Made by Fox in the US, the programme was shown on the digital channel Living TV in the UK. Each week, two ordinary women who were unhappy with their appearance were brought before a panel of cosmetic surgeons, dentists, hairdressers, stylists and life coaches who would transform their looks into the all-American ideal.
Tears-a-plenty followed as the participants were subjected to traumatic surgical procedures and isolated from their families. It was all deemed worthwhile several weeks later, when the women, with bouffant hair, cleavage-revealing frocks and lashings of make-up were allowed to look at themselves in the mirror. A more successful way to exploit female insecurities has not been invented.
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