Subtitle: Bang goes my career in factual TV development.
I’ve been reading about Discovery’s new show, Naked and Afraid, which someone on Twitter said sounded like his first sexual encounter. This isn’t a sex series (per se) but a new twist on the old jungle survival mullarkey. People are paired up, removed of their clothing, and sent off to survive in the jungle for 21 days with nothing but a GoPro, machete, fire-starter(!) and dreams of a career in television to sustain them.
I’m interested partly because some was shot in Costa Rica in an ‘Extreme!’ jungle location rather like this one (although not as remote as they were able to get producer, Steve Rankin, to a San Jose hospital by helicopter within 30 minutes of being bitten by a fer-de-lance), and partly because until fairly recently I was serving time at the TV development coal face shoveling this kind of stuff up the line.
It’s a frustrating and soul-destroying business. ‘Survival shows are so common now that it’s gotten more and more difficult to convince the audience that what they’re watching is something extreme’, Craig Coffman, Discovery channel executive, was quoted as saying. He adds: ‘Having no clothes just takes it to the next level. It’s the ultimate test and makes survival exponentially more difficult.’ Ha, Ha . . . oh, I see. He’s serious.
I far as I can work out the only one facing a tricky life or death televisual survival situation in Naked and Afraid was the producer, who I suspect was wearing clothes at the time (we need pockets), which undermines the ridiculous premise that things are exponentially more difficult when you’re not. I can see that running into backpackers or another television crew filming another survival series might be embarrassing, and that protecting an additional expanse of naked flesh from mosquitoes could be challenging, but I’m not sure I’d call it the ‘ultimate test’. Hey, you should try drying your washing in a rainforest in July . . .that’s the ultimate test, although not as televisual. The only genuine fear factor for participants has got to be having their naked backsides broadcast to millions on a major network, and then having to go back to work. Take away the inherent threat of public humiliation and there’s really nothing for a naked participant to fear apart from ticks. Naked and Fairly Itchy.
Here in somewheresville, I’ve been swinging in the hammock devising my own version. In Not Naked and Not Afraid, participants are actively encouraged to act normal. For example, the first thing I’d do if I was left naked in the jungle with nothing but a GoPro and machete would be to follow a river to a trail and a trail to a farm and flog the camera for a shirt and some knickers, a sheet of plastic, a pair of boots, a lighter and a can of Off! I’d get dressed, use the plastic sheet as a tent, a groundsheet, and for collecting condensation, and on the first night I’d probably light a fire, give myself a liberal dousing of Deet and camp out. After that, I’d take a nice long shower in a jungle pool, and, having asked for directions at the farm, I’d hike to the nearest jungle lodge and use well-honed social survival skills to get a room for the night and a flight in the morning with payment to follow in due course. I think Normal! could be the new Extreme!
There’s basically one brief in reality TV, which is to come up with the new whatever but make it pacier, sexier, more extreme and cheaper, adding the compulsory elements of jeopardy, a twist, unhinged personalities (celebrity where possible and Z-list will do) who ‘go on a journey through the course of the series’ (read ‘unravel’), and an online audience engagement element (usually rubbish because production companies don’t understand that part and don’t want to hand out cash to geek agencies either).
The Naked and Afraid production company delivered a series that, well, delivers – and just by asking participants to get their kit off. Genius! They must be very happy. No-one has swim with sharks/ crocodiles/ polar bears, stuff their faces with tons of burning chilies, cheat on their wives, or stand on poles for over 24hrs, or anything.
It’s got me thinking how, until Normal! does become the new Extreme!, nudity could ratchet serious topics up the ratings – politics, healthcare, the arts. It could bring new audiences to tired classics like Watchdog, Springwatch, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent, One Man & His Dog, Four Rooms, and Antiques Roadshow – actually scrap the last one . . . and scrap naked Strictly. So what if people find it revolting, they’ll still tune in – and that’s ratings, and that’s what commissioners need for their personal advancement. Judging from this series, we might even be able to get some fresh ideas, gripping stories and well-crafted factual filmmaking through the commissioner’ portals if we just get the presenters to strip off.
As far as coming here, and this is directed specifically to Naked and Afraid viewers, I would recommend at least bringing boots.