September 15, 2008

TV Prepares for a Cold, Hard Dose of Reality

By Mike Hughes

When scripts vanished, TV people found an essential fact: Yes, they need reality shows. That was clear during the writers' strike, and it lingers now.

Many of the new, scripted shows have been delayed. Meanwhile, there are a half-dozen new network reality shows this fall, alongside the return of key players:

NBC's "The Biggest Loser" returns Tuesday, this time with a family weight-loss effort. "Something that strikes my heart is ... seeing how parents take responsibility for being the role model that brought their child to this point," says producer Mark Koops.

ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" returns Sept. 22, with a line-up that ranges from pop star Toni Braxton to Olympic beach-volleyball champion Misty May-Treanor.

Two key shows -- CBS' "Amazing Race," ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" -- collide on Sept. 28.

And there's "Survivor," which started the trend. Originally set for Sept. 18, it now has a two-hour opener on Sept. 25.

This already is the 17th edition of "Survivor," but it keeps changing its identity. That's partly from the setting. Now "Survivor" returns to Africa, this time in Gabon.

"In Kenya, it was almost like we were in a zoo," says host Jeff Probst. "But in Gabon, the animals are hidden. One night, an elephant crept toward the camp. It's such a big deal, like a Steven Spielberg movie; suddenly, it's just there."

But mainly, the show changes with its contestants. The most- recent round, "fans vs. favorites," had people who considered themselves "Survivor" experts. They thought hard -- maybe too hard.

"You can overthink instead of going with your gut," Probst says. "Your gut gives you a response, and then five people tell you something else."

Some schemers have failed; some seemingly light presences have won. Amber Brkich and Parvati Shallow were originally dismissed, then became million-dollar winners.

Now "Survivor" has a less-obsessed group. Contestants range from Bob Crowley, 58, a physics teacher who soon was dubbed "Mr. Wizard" to Crystal Cox, 29, an imposing (6-foot-3) gold medalist from the 2004 Olympic sprint relay team.

In the same way, "Biggest Loser" transforms with each set of contestants. This season, four of its duos are married. The other four link a young adult and a parent.

"They often have come there with their biggest enabler," Koops says. "(It) forces them to address their relationships."

One woman, he says, is "desperate to have her father regain his health so he's alive on her wedding day."

Another began to gain weight after her parents split up. "She stayed with her dad and blamed her mom ... and hadn't phoned her mom in six years."

They auditioned together and got on the show.

Weight issues can be treacherous for teens, says Alison Sweeney, the "Biggest Loser" host. "You hit a certain age and all of a sudden those ice cream treats ... stack up. ... It was hard on me."

It was also very public. She turns 32 on Sept. 19 and has spent half her life on "Days of Our Lives."

Now Sweeney -- who is expecting her second child in January -- gives food some thought. "There is something so fulfilling about going to the farmers' market, picking out fresh ingredients and making a Sunday dinner for my family."

And now she's star of a weight-loss show. Still, the real stars might be trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper.

They have opposite images -- she is sometimes fierce; he's sometimes laidback -- but Koops says both are popular. "I think they're one of television's great double acts."

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