MIPTV: How 'Hunger Games' and 'The Walking Dead' Are Inspiring Reality TV
With survivalist themes, social experimentation and even zombies, a new wave of reality formats are taking their lead from dystopian science fiction.
Call it the Hunger Games syndrome.
Suzanne Collins' best-selling YA novels – and the hit film franchise they inspired – imagined a world in which young people battle for survival with viewers tracking their every move and helping determine whether they live or die. That world, or at least the reality TV version of it, is upon us.
The next wave of reality TV formats – on display at the MIPTV market in Cannes this week – feature plot lines straight from the pages of recent dystopian fiction.
Take No Return, from French production outfit Big Nose, in which teams of mismatched pairs (one jock and one geek, for example) are dropped in a hostile environment like a desert island or a jungle and compete for "passports" to move on to the next environment. Viewers at home vote to award certain contestants tools and prizes to help them with the individual contests – reminiscent of the “sponsors” parachuting in items for Katniss and her fellow Hunger Games tributes.
Or take Survival Live, Discovery's new reality show, in which eight people are stranded in the wilderness for 42 days with only the clothes on their back. In essence a clothed version of Discovery's hit Naked and Afraid (in which a man and woman are dropped somewhere horrible with no water, no food and not a stitch on), Survival Live adds a Hunger Games twist via a 24/7 web platform. Viewers will not only be able to see the participants' biometric data – revealing who is struggling physically – the contestants will also be able to ask viewers for help – from a webcam pep talk to food, clothing or even dental floss.
Then there's Utopia, the latest from Big Brother creator John de Mol which has participants spending a full year cut off from society but under 24/7 surveillance as they struggle to create their own civilization. The original Dutch version of the show launched in January and was a ratings hit, both on air and online, where viewers can check in on the survivalists day and night. The contestants most popular on social media get special privileges, including access to the cameras spying on the other members of the Utopia commune. Fox has picked up the show for the U.S. with de Mol reportedly promising the American iteration will be even rougher on its participants.
Reality TV, it seems, has come full circle. Collins' concept of televised blood sport was inspired, in part, by voyeuristic reality shows such as Big Brother. Now reality is taking its lead from fiction.
The most extreme example is Zombie Boot Camp, a new format that won best pitch at the MipFormats contest.
The idea of the show, pitched by Australian company The Feds, is very Walking Dead. Two teams compete to see which is better equipped to survive the zombie apocalypse. As teams fail in challenges, they have to send members out to face the zombies. In the finale, two contestants will face a horde of 200 zombies, including their old team members, with one escaping to win a cash prize.
Warner Bros., which backed the MipFormats pitch competition, put up the $34,000 cash prize earmarked for fleshing out the format. Warners hopes to heighten the drama and audience interaction of Zombie Boot Camp before it takes it out to broadcasters.
The trend toward fiction-inspired reality comes in part from a need to find the next big thing, as established format juggernauts – from Big Brother to Survivor to The Amazing Race – are looking long in the tooth. By tapping into the boom in TV drama, as well as the even bigger social media phenomenon, reality producers hope to hold on to millennials and staunch the drift away from linear TV.
It is notable that a second-screen application was a part of virtually ever new reality show on offer at MIPTV, often as a key element in the show's plot.
"I think we’ll see more of the type of apps where through a second screen you are offering some sort of advantage or disadvantage, because that actually gives some meaning to the second-screen experience," said Olivier Delfosse, senior vp digital at FremantleMedia. "What we always talk about is that the audience really wants to be able to impact what they are watching."
And, Delfosse believes, interactive reality is only just beginning.
"For a long time producers found it hard to cede (the power) to the audience to determine the outcome of a show, but they're getting to be much better at it," he said. "The idea of a TV show that is fully produced by the audience at home -- we're moving in that direction."