Tue Nov 12, 8:29 AM ET
Bill Keveney USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES --
Name. Address. Age. Education. Sexual fantasy.
What kind of application asks for such an intimate detail? One that gets the winning hopeful a much-desired gig: a spot on a reality TV show. In this case, NBC's Meet My Folks.
The very personal questions on the application -- including ''craziest date'' and ''Ever had a threesome?'' -- can be skipped, presumably at the risk of not making the cut for the reality show that lets parents pick a date for their daughter or son.
The couple of dozen young adults filling out the Folks form in a studio office hallway on a recent Saturday make up only a tiny fraction of those hoping to be cast on a reality TV show. More than 2,000 would-be daredevils waited up to 10 hours recently in Florida to try for a spot on NBC's Fear Factor. CBS' Survivor has attracted up to 50,000 hopefuls for 16 tropical tribal spots. And applicants face roughly 3,000-to-1 odds of making the casts of MTV's The Real World and Road Rules.
''It's harder to get on these shows than it is to get into Harvard,'' says Jonathan Murray, who produces the MTV shows.
This raw material, ordinary people who want to be on TV, is needed for a genre exploding in size. Survivor, The Real World, Fear Factor and The Bachelor head a list of more than a dozen prime-time reality shows, not to mention syndicated ''date-coms'' such as Blind Date. And the list is growing: UPN is searching for a Supermodel, CBS is reviving Star Search, Fox is expecting engagements in Married by America, and ABC is looking to muss heirs with an inheritance show, The Will.
The Meet My Folks hopefuls, who get individual videotaped interviews after filling out multipage forms, have come for various reasons, but getting a date doesn't seem to top the list.
Cazzey Cereghino, 23, a screenwriter, auditions because ''in the entertainment industry, you're looking for any exposure you can get.'' College student Michael Brughelli, 20, was invited after being spotted on an MTV reality show, Dismissed. Indiana high school senior Adrienne Williams stops by while on a visit to explore a Hollywood career.
The lures of appearing on this show, like many of its kind, include the chance for fame, adventure and a prize -- in this case, a date in an exotic location. Although some people introduced by Meet My Folks have become couples, applicants here aren't getting their hopes too high about finding true romance. They understand the realities of reality TV.
''If it helps in any way, that's a plus,'' says Roxanne Taylor, an Irvine, Calif., businesswoman in her 40s whose son and daughter hope to pick her date in a reverse Meet My Folks episode. If not? ''Then we had a good time and got to go to Hawaii.''
Would-be suitors applying for the show seem eager for their close-ups, even if it means a hostile on-air interrogation. ''We thought we might have a problem with the lie detector,'' a staple of Meet My Folks, says creator Bruce Nash, whose show will return early next year. ''But we didn't. People want to be on TV.''
Picking the right people can determine success or failure. ''Casting is everything,'' Bachelor casting director Lacey Pemberton says. ''If we don't have a (good) cast, we don't have a show.''
The shows, which can have casting staffs of a dozen or more, seek contestants with varying traits, depending on the format. In a competitive field, they guard casting ''trade secrets,'' as 30 Seconds to Fame executive producer Michael Binkow half-jokingly calls them. Shows recruit in many ways, including Web sites and toll-free numbers; casting calls in L.A. or on the road; visits to social gatherings, from bars to churches; ads in alternative weeklies; and talent agents on the lookout across the USA. Once a show gets on TV, it can use airtime to solicit applicants.
Do you have an unusual talent?
Traits producers look for include:
* Attractiveness. Young, pretty people are a magnet, especially for the young-adult target audience.
''This is television. When people are (turning the channel), we want them to stop and watch,'' Real World's Murray says. Young adults also tend to be at a more tumultuous stage in their lives, with new jobs and relationships that can create drama, he says.
On dating shows, the principals have to be good-looking enough to create attraction, says Meet My Folks' Nash. His bigger challenge is finding candidates with interesting parents willing to go on TV.
* Outsized personalities. Standout characters, not wallflowers, grab viewers for The Real World. They must jump out faster even in one-shot shows, says Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog executive producer Matt Kunitz, who used to work on Real World.
''You have weeks to get to know a cast member on Real World. You can peel back layers, like an onion,'' Kunitz says. ''I don't have that time. I need big, bold personalities who will be memorable'' immediately.
Applicants try to stand out, he says, sometimes by taking their clothes off. One guy stripped down to underwear and a cowboy hat at a casting call. He was picked. Searches in unusual places, such as Goth Web sites, can yield offbeat contestants to add variety, such as a Marilyn Manson look-alike picked for Dog Eat Dog.
Applicants for The Bachelor needn't be ''extreme extroverts,'' but a zippy personality and comfort in front of the camera help, Pemberton says. Most important, she wants people who believe in the show's premise and ''are passionate about finding someone this way.''
* Specific (or unusual) talents. Fox's American Idol wants singers; Supermodel wants potential runway queens. Fox's 30 Seconds to Fame has visited cruise ships, street performances, even the circus. The effort has yielded singers and dancers as well as a 70-year-old who spits ping-pong balls at a xylophone to play When the Saints Go Marching In and a woman who shoots arrows with her feet from a reverse handstand. ''We scour the country,'' Binkow says.
* Diversity. A range of personalities and backgrounds can create dramatic tension or chemistry and attract a broader audience. ''We're looking for something of a cross-section of America, people viewers can relate to or be against,'' says CBS' Ghen Maynard, who oversees Survivor, The Amazing Race and Big Brother. Nationwide searches help achieve that goal.
Animal Planet's Dog Days, which follows a group of dogs and owners who frequent a New York dog park, goes a step further: canine diversity. Creator Steve Rosenbaum says: ''We had to have a mix of breeds. We needed big dogs, little dogs, mutts, purebreds.''
Searching for the best candidates, producers must weed out troublesome ones. They cite situations they want to avoid: the groom with the checkered past on Fox's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and the knife-wielding houseguest on CBS' Big Brother.
Most shows start with questionnaires. Meet My Folks asks hopefuls about criminal records and sexually transmitted diseases. Like many shows, it hires a security company to check for convictions, restraining orders and even traffic citations.
Serial contestants will have a tough time: Fear Factor, Dog Eat Dog and The Bachelor restrict appearances on other reality shows. Actors looking for a career break also aren't wanted. Many shows recruit beyond Los Angeles partly to avoid them.
''We really try hard to steer away from actors,'' says Tom Klein, executive producer of Blind Date, which sometimes goes on the road. Actors aren't necessarily bad for a show, as Jerri Manthey proved on Blind Date and Survivor, but the key to success is getting ''people trying to find a relationship.''
For all the intrusive questions, background checks and eligibility restrictions, applicants aren't fazed. When casting supervisor Marie Malyszek asks Brughelli about a sexual encounter during his Meet My Folks interview, he explains how he and a girlfriend ended up ''shaking'' a clothing-store dressing room.
''I'm bringing my disinfectant next time'' shopping, Malyszek says. What's good for reality TV can be a bit too much information for a real conversation.