Sunday, October 07, 2001

Reality auditions - only the strong survive

For final contestants, reaching the show has been a long, laborious process

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When you ask Survivor producer Mark Burnett why he picked a contestant for his top-rated reality show, he invariably will say the person was “an interesting character.”

        He said that about Crittenden teacher Rodger Bingham — and everyone else on Survivor: The Australian Outback earlier this year.

[photo] Survivor 3's Samburu tribe, kneeling from left, Brandon Quinton, Teresa Cooper and Silas Gaither, and, standing from left, Linda Spencer, Carl Bilancione, Lindsey Richter, Frank Garrison and Kim Powers.
(CBS photos)
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        But finding the right mix of “interesting characters” is the toughest task facing a reality TV producer, including Mr. Burnett's Survivor: Africa premiering Thursday (8 p.m., Channels 12, 7).

        Just as with sitcoms and dramas, casting is crucial to the success of a reality TV series — and sometimes to the safety of participants.

        “The casting process of choosing people to make it (in the 42-day game) is very important,” says Mr. Burnett, whose Survivor producers looked at about 1,000 audition tapes from more than 50,000 applicants.

        “This is not for weak-minded, weak-bodied people,” Mr. Burnett says.

        For Survivor 3, shot in the desert heat of Kenya's Shaba National Reserve, he chose three advertising/marketing specialists, two bartenders, a high school basketball coach, a professional soccer player, a sheriff's deputy, a dentist and a goat farmer.

        Selecting the cast for a reality show “is so involved that by the time we get down to the finalists, network executives will really know these characters as well as they know the characters in a scripted drama,” says Mary-Ellis Bunim, co-creator and executive producer of MTV's long-running The Real World.

        “They may not know exactly what is going to happen, but ... they can pretty much predict that there will be drama,” says Ms. Bunim, also co-creator of Fox's Love Cruise (9 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 19, 45)..

[photo] The Boran tribe, seated from left, Kim Johnson, Ethan Zohn, Diane Ogden and Kelly Goldsmith, and, standing from left, Lex van den Berghe, Jessie Camacho, Clarence Black and Tom Buchanan
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        Mr. Bingham, 54, who taped Survivor 2 in Australia a year ago, was amazed at the scrutiny by Mr. Burnett's staff after being selected from 49,000 applicants.

        For three days, he was put through a battery of tests in Los Angeles. The first day he took a 1,400-question psychological test, then spoke to a psychologist. The second day he had a complete medical examination.

        “On the third day the interviews started. I personally went through five different interviews with anywhere from five to nine individuals asking me questions,” he says.

        “They're certainly masters at casting,” says Mr. Bingham, who makes his TV acting debut next Sunday with a cameo on Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three-Hour Tour in History (9 p.m., Channels 12, 7).

        Mr. Burnett told TV critics earlier this year that he looks for adventure-seeking Survivor candidates with type-A personalities “who want to be leaders and want to win.” He also looks for age, race and geographic diversity.

        “If they look great, all the better,” he says.

        And the Survivor 3 cast looks great — even better than Mr. Bingham's Survivor 2 group. The contestants range in age from 22 to 57. The Australian age spread was 22-53, with Mr. Bingham as the senior member. The first Survivor players ranged from 22 to 72, with two players in their 60s and nobody in their 40s or 50s.

        The Survivor 3 cast also will be a very athletic bunch. Viewers on Thursday will meet a high school basketball coach, a pro soccer player and many marathon runners, cycling enthusiasts and swimmers.

        “The cast of Survivor 3 is going to be the best reality group yet that you've seen. I think they are spectacular,” boasts Les Moonves, CBS president and CEO.

        Mr. Moonves has learned first-hand that not doing comprehensive background checks can result in embarrassment or trouble on reality shows.

        • CBS removed Justin Sebik from the Big Brother house in July after he threatened a female resident with a knife. Producers didn't know Mr. Sebik had been charged three times with assault in Bayonne, N.J.

        “We had a clean psychological profile on him ... (and) a clean criminal background check,” Mr. Moonves says. “We didn't think he would have anti-social behavior. We were surprised by what happened.”

        • CBS put William Collins, also known as “Will Mega,” in the Big Brother house last year, not knowing he was a former national field marshal for the New Black Panthers.

        • Fox's Temptation Island producers had to boot one of four couples off the show this year after they failed to disclose they had a child together, a violation of the rules.

        “There's no 100 percent certainty in any of the (casting) investigations that you do,” says Nancy Tellem, CBS Entertainment president. “You try to do the best job you can ... but that's the risk you run (with realtity shows).”

        Producers of Temptation Island 2, to premiere Nov. 7, say they spent more time this time on background checks and interviews. But Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president, said that might not prevent future casting errors.

        “We're dealing with a public that seems to be very interested in getting on television. And some people will do anything to try to do that,” Ms. Berman says. “I will expect that we will make a mistake again, because of the nature of what we're finding out when we deal with the public.”

        Many people are attracted to reality TV because it can provide instant fame, producers say. Kate Pahls, the Columbia Township grandmother on The Mole last winter, admits that the lure of fame “was around 25 percent of the decision to apply” for the show.

        Thousands have applied for Survivor because “a large amount of these people wanted primarily to be on television, which is pretty normal,” Mr. Burnett says. “We kind of weeded (them) out pretty quickly because that really isn't a good motivation to suffer 42 days.”

        Chris Cowan, Temptation Island 2 executive producer, says “the great allure of reality television” for viewers is not knowing how people will act spontaneously in situations. “You cannot anticipate what their reactions are going to be,” he says.

        That's also the dark side of reality TV, says Jamie Kellner, Turner Broadcasting chairman and CEO.

        “What scares me about it is that when you put people in front of an audience — or you put a camera on people — they behave differently,” Mr. Kellner says. “The extremes to which people will go to get noticed, and get attention, I think, should be frightening to all of us.”

        Ms. Bunim insists that most potential problems can be eliminated by thorough background checks. She rattled off the precautions for producing a successful reality series:

        “Take time in casting. Know your subjects. Be very careful about the missions, because safety precautions are key. That's it. And then it's all up to good storytelling (through editing).”


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