Strangers in paradise
The first reality soap, being shot in the Caribbean by a British company, has a unique twist: its contestants could be there for years.
Ed Waller reports
16 March 2004
"I enjoy playing God with the contestants," explains Bruce Toms, the executive producer of Forever Eden, the most extravagant reality show ever made. "Manipulating their lives, being a puppet-master..." He even admits to bringing a copy of Lord of the Flies with him for inspiration while shooting the show, which - like Golding's tale - records what happens when a bunch of kids are left to their own devices on a tropical island.
The $20m (£11.1m) series, intended by Rupert Murdoch's Fox network to be a never-ending "reality soap opera", is being produced for American television by a British company, Mentorn. Its presenter, the Wish You Were Here host Ruth England, is hoping the venture will help her "crack" America like Pop Idol's Simon Cowell. Like the crew, the 11 contestants have committed themselves for an indefinite period, and if successful they could find themselves living in a reality TV bubble for years.
The show is flying the flag for UK television talent in Tinseltown. A big-budget cross between Survivor and I'm a Celebrity, Forever Eden manages to make both shows seem small beer. It turns an entire Caribbean bay - including a 300-yard stretch of beach, some jungle, about 20 beach huts and a fake Aztec temple - into its 48-acre equivalent of the Big Brother house. There's absolutely no doubt that the full $20m has been spent on the show. No less than 80 robotic cameras are scattered throughout the bay to capture all the action from the 11 beach-perfect contestants who have signed up to participate.
In the production team's ocean-side editing suite - whose banks of screens and gadgetry resemble a 747 flight deck - there's an ever-changing hierarchy of news stories scrawled on a whiteboard: Matt plans to make a move on Liz today. Increasing tension between Shawna and Liz. The inevitable comparisons to the fictional Truman Show are confirmed.
Aside from the scale, Toms believes that the main difference between Eden and previous reality shows is that he generates the dramatic tension through direct intervention rather than crafty editing - an accusation often levelled at Big Brother. "We can't be too Machiavellian but we certainly whisper suggestions in contestants' ears and change the rules to get our story," he adds, grinning like an imp. "And we always get our story." The cast, all camera-savvy wannabe actors itching for fame, play along accordingly, even for retakes.
Casting a reality show usually means finding interesting characters who are polar opposites in the hope of a little ratings-driving conflict. Not in Eden. Toms' advice to participants was: "Don't worry about being yourself - be who ever you want to be. Live out your fantasies and as long as America tunes in, you'll get paid."
Yes, like actors, they also get paid - the equivalent of $4,000 per week in "Eden dollars", which they can exchange with each other. "As the dark side of human nature emerges, money will become a big factor," predicts Toms. "When some people have $75,000 and others have none, it'll get really interesting."
Contestants are not voted out by the viewers - it is the producers who decide who will stay and who will go home. Those who walk off the set forfeit their earnings.
He says he'd stop short of "letting them smash Piggy's head against the wall" - as per Golding's finale - and Fox are against any suggestion of sex or violence for fear of upsetting advertisers. Nonetheless, Toms obviously relishes the idea of taking the show into what he calls a "Jerry Springer mob-rule" direction. Indeed, the first episode, which aired in the US earlier this month, was entitled "Revenge". Mentorn's previous hit, Robot Wars, was also about deliberately steering automatons on self-destructive collision courses.
While British audiences like their reality programmes raw and unpolished, Americans like theirs glossy, full of jeopardy, and with plenty of good-looking contestants winning and losing in exotic locales. Though Eden ticks all those boxes, it also deliberately stretches the term "reality" to new levels, even by American standards.
For documentary producer Mentorn, usually overlooked for entertainment shows by UK broadcasters, a lot hinges on whether its new take on the reality genre works. Coming so soon after its previous $20m Fox show, Paradise Hotel (currently on air on Channel Five), the Eden deal immediately catapulted Mentorn into the big league of US producers. It is now streets ahead of other British companies making reality shows directly for the big four US networks - like RDF (makers of Wife Swap) and Granada (I'm a Celebrity). Mentorn is planning to use the Eden format to prise open other TV markets like France and Australia, as well as drumming up some reality commissions in the UK. Mentorn's chief executive, Charles Thompson, admits that it's a high-risk strategy.
"Your bowels contract a lot when you consider the consequences if Fox drops the show," he says, nervously watching the American ratings from his office in London. "Our strategy to crack the US has always been to go for the big network prime time commissions - other British producers can have the little cable channels. The noise will be heard throughout the entire industry if 25 million people switch over when our show comes on. Likewise, if we drop the ball it'll be dropped in the full glare of publicity."
Remembering how Granada's American version of the jungle reality show I'm a Celebrity failed dismally on ABC, it was perhaps a brave pitch by Thompson to choose a jungle format for his soap opera project. After winning a deal potentially worth around $35m per year to Mentorn, Thompson realised that he now had to deliver the goods. "Forever is a long time," he says. "This could actually be a life-sentence."
But with three shows now aired, Thompson could well be let out on parole. His experiment hasn't exactly got off to a stellar start: it has so far lost a million viewers each episode and remains unloved by the critics, who are unsure how to categorise it. One even billed it as a "dope opera", in response to the room-temperature IQs of some of the contestants.
But the man with whom the show's fate ultimately lies, a Fox executive vice-president, Mike Darnell, is upbeat. "Just like a fictional soap it's going to take time and effort," he says. "It all depends on people's connection to the characters." Looks like Thompson may have to do his full stretch.