'Fear Factor' 100th episode The success of NBC's reality gross fest proves there's nothing to fear but 'Fear' itself.
By Ray Richmond
It started out with a nine-episode order in June 2001, a modest beginning for a show that would come to pioneer a genre. As it reaches the 100-episode milestone Monday, NBC's "Fear Factor" has come to represent the gold standard of reality programs that convince contestants to walk a high beam in the sky, chew on cow intestines, endure scorpion-filled pits -- and emerge with their wits more or less intact.
The former summertime gimmick is now a mini empire: Not only is "Fear" still a cornerstone for NBC's primetime fortunes, it's also the first of the current primetime reality crop of shows to find wide distribution and success in national syndication (it has garnered strong attention on FX since launching in September; see related story on page S-2) and become a licensing and merchandising phenomenon. Now available in more than 100 countries, "Fear" actually has its roots in a Dutch series called "Now or Neverland."
But while the Dutch may have been swallowing this sort of programming before "Fear" premiered, the show is unlike anything else ever seen on American television. CBS' "Survivor" had beaten it to the gross-out stunt punch, enlisting contestants to chow down on indigenous bugs and barbecued rats, but "Fear's" producers proudly boast they took disgusting and vulgar to the next, lower level.
"When we started producing this show, it's safe to say that none of us knew exactly what we had," admits David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, which produces "Fear." "We knew that it was different, but none of us really knew how successful it would be. And I'm not sure we would have been had (NBC Universal Television Group president) Jeff Zucker not seen the show's potential early on and promoted it relentlessly before its premiere throughout the NBA playoffs."
Zucker credits "Fear" for its "tremendous accomplishment" in hitting 100 episodes. "It continues to dominate its time period, which isn't something you can say about any other reality show," he notes. "'Fear Factor' has a lot of steam left in it and shows no signs of losing its grip. Plus, the demographics are still really broad."
When "Fear" first launched, it averaged a surprisingly strong 5.6 rating, with an 18% share of viewers ages 18-49 and 12 million weekly viewers overall. Five seasons along, it still wins its time period -- and in that key demo -- but ratings are down 19% (as of mid-October, compared to the previous year). Some erosion is, of course, understandable for a show that produced an unheard-of 39 hour-long original episodes last season. Excluding newsmagazines, not since the 1950s has a program generated so many original segments in a single broadcast year.
That's a lot of "Fear" to spread on a weekly basis. But executive producer Matt Kunitz doesn't mind -- though there's irony here. "I don't even like dog slobber on me," he admits. "This show really does represent everything that's in my own worst nightmares."
Kunitz's success trip has been a strange one. Having landed a production deal at NBC four years ago, he was pressed into service as a producer on the Endemol-produced show "Chains of Love," which got canceled before it even left preproduction. ("I was probably the first network producer to be thrilled that his show was yanked," Kunitz quips.) Still, NBC was stuck with owning nine episodes of some kind of Endemol USA show and needed an idea. Kunitz asked what other programming the company had in its reality arsenal that NBC might be able to snare, and WMA executive vp Mark Itkin, who represents Endemol in the United States, suggested a version of "Now or Neverland."
Kunitz liked it, but he had a concern: "The show was pretty extreme, and I wanted to make sure that NBC wouldn't make us water it down too much. Once I had that assurance, I was onboard."
Renamed for American audiences, "Fear" was an immediate, surprise hit, and part of that, Kunitz says, comes from the way the show draws viewers in. "The production quality of the show makes people feel like they're there in the moment. The mini-POV cameras really put audience members in the moment. With the music we use and the editing and the multiple angles, we make viewers feel like they're right there with the contestants; that's what separates our show from the others. I mean, you don't feel like you're Bachelor Bob when you watch (ABC's) 'The Bachelor.'"
That musical element shouldn't be overlooked: Assembled by composer Russ Landau and the Upland Sound Tribe, music is used sparingly to cue audiences to particularly stressful moments. "Because the show is stunt-driven, a lot of the story is told without dialogue," director J. Rupert Thompson says. "Music, as well as great visuals and sound effects, replaces that dialogue to tell the story."
From Day 1, "Fear" has pushed the envelope of production innovation, particularly with the use of the POV cameras. A hundred episodes down the road, the increasingly cheaper cost of those cameras has even given the team more latitude to use -- and destroy them -- with impunity, which has also led to greater production flexibility.
"The technology keeps improving," Kunitz points out, "and as it does, we're able to do bigger and better stunts with every passing season. Our physical stunts, for instance, are 10 times bigger and more grand now than they were when we started."
Early episodes tended to shortchange the game element, Kunitz acknowledges. "There was initially nothing quantifiable about the stunts, and we realized that we needed that element to make the game exciting."
Plus, contestants just weren't able to physically do some of the stunts at first. "But as we progressed and saw the stunts could be done safely, we were able to expand (their) scope. This season, we're having people literally landing helicopters on moving trucks."
According to Itkin, "Fear" is unappreciated as a force in television, especially considering the imitations it has inspired and the effect it has had on NBC's schedule. "Viewers appreciate it, but the show isn't one that's looked at among executives in the TV business as being one of the more upscale reality shows. My feeling is that this show could have been a real bomb if it weren't so well-produced and directed."
Kunitz disagrees that the show is underestimated by executives. "The only place I think 'Fear Factor' may be underappreciated at this point is in the mainstream media, which still tends to think of us as 'that gross show.' But network presidents appreciate what a show like 'Fear Factor' can do -- and don't sell us short at all."
Talk to director Thompson though, and one will find a man who clearly appreciates his job. "It's just awesome," he says. "For a reality director, 'Fear Factor' is the best because you get such variety. We have a different stunt and a different location every day. There's always a challenge and something new and fresh to think about. Every morning, I scratch my head and wonder how we're going to pull it off. Then every night when I'm driving home, I'm giggling and thinking, Oh, my God, we did it!"
Not that it's ever easy. For the 100th episode, Thompson says they shot a final stunt in New York in front of the Statue of Liberty during a rainstorm. "Everybody bore down and got it done," he says.
But stunts can have hidden hazards, Thompson says. "We had a stunt where they had to transfer cow hearts from one huge trough to another as it was draining liquid sewage on the ground (along with) bugs and bile and the most revolting stuff imaginable. You can't even describe the smell. It was so horribly foul. My crew had to wear surgical masks, spray air freshener and burn incense to mute out that odor."
"You can't get away from that smell," host Joe Rogan agrees. "It just knocks you on your ass."
Rogan -- a stand-up comedian by trade -- is pleasantly surprised that the show has thrived through an episode count that has reached triple digits. "I thought it would be canceled immediately, that it just wouldn't go," he says. "The show was pretty bad in the beginning. The stunts weren't as well-thought out; it wasn't as much about accomplishing real tasks. But the gross stunts are far more disgusting now. The bar has really been raised -- or lowered, depending on how you view it. The kind of stuff we're doing now is really shocking to me."
Yet, while the stunts have grown bigger and flashier, Kunitz says "Fear's" budget has always remained in the $1 million-$1.2 million range for each hour episode. (There have been modest increases in the funds each season, he adds.) "We've always been one of the more expensive reality shows because of the insurance costs and the ambition of our stunts," Kunitz says. "Yes, we've been able to spend a bit more money and use more cameras as we've gone along; that's one reason why even our gross stunts seem far more extensive and involved. We can't just have them walk beams anymore. Now, we have to have them flipping a car over a moving train. Eating eyeballs by itself no longer cuts it.
"But it's not just about the money involved. It's more a case of having to keep topping ourselves and making sure the audience continues to be dazzled," Kunitz continues. "That takes imagination as much as financing."
To that end, Kunitz claims that he and his production team are coming up with yet more ways to ensure that "Fear" remains fresh (and more disgusting) as it looks to the next 100 episodes. Plans include mutations of sushi and doughnuts. "Instead of filling the doughnut with jelly, we load it with worms and beetles and blood and rotten squid guts," Kunitz says proudly. "Because people can so relate to eating a doughnut, it's probably the grossest thing we've ever done. We feel that as we get past 100 episodes, it's important to take this show to the next level to make sure it doesn't run out of steam."
More blood, guts and creepy-crawly things: A grossed-out America is clearly licking its chops.
Published Nov. 04, 2004