- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Reality television is alive, well — and plenty edgy these days. Mere romantic high jinks or survivalist posturing just doesn’t cut it anymore.

“Do you have a sibling or parent who was killed while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan or Iraq? Are you a young person who has been injured or had a family member killed or injured by terrorism?”

Such disturbing inquiries are the basis for MTV’s reality show, “Choose or Lose.”

They are just two of a dozen questions posed by the cable channel for the series, which intends to showcase “young people whose lives will be affected by the 2004 presidential election.”

Producers are specific about the issues at stake for the 18-to-30-year-old crowd: unemployment, student loans, school vouchers, school overcrowding, homosexual “marriage” and medical insurance.

But youthful political proclivities are just the beginning here. MTV has an open casting call for 35 shows in all, from “Breakthrough,” which courts those who want to make contact with the dead, to “Got Your Back,” a program devoted to people who believe they’ve been unfairly fired.

Though their cachet relies on cheeky entertainment, reality shows are impinging on, well, reality.

On Thursday, the Federal Election Commission granted Showtime a “media exemption” to campaign-finance rules, allowing the network to include or mention actual presidential candidates on its new reality series “American Candidate,” scheduled to air next year.

The series pits politically minded contestants against one another in a mock, four-month presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, things have gotten mighty personal over at VH1, another music channel.

“What is your favorite part of your body? What is you personal theme song? What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?”

These are just three of 96 questions on the eight-page casting application for “Flab to Fab,” a new makeover show that proposes to transform ugly ducklings of both sexes into rock stars in three months, via “rock star trainers” and diets.

VH1 is casting for 10 other shows as well. Among other cable channels, TLC needs performers on 14 shows, Animal Planet on three, and Spike — the men’s channel — has a casting call out for a show that promises some plucky gent $100,000 if he’ll move into a Los Angeles mansion for two weeks and pretend to be rich.

Among broadcast networks, ABC needs both rich guys and poor guys to woo unsuspecting bachelorettes, along with candidates for an “extreme” makeover and mothers who will swap places with other mothers elsewhere in the country.

NBC seeks adventuresome singles for yet another exotic dating show, single fathers who want to get married again, stalwart heterosexual men willing to face down the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” makeover clan and uppity gourmands who crave proximity to hunky celebrity chef Rocco Dispirito in the second season of “The Restaurant.”

On CBS, “Survivor” — the grandaddy of all reality shows — has given intrepid adventurers another month to apply for the eighth edition of the series, to be broadcast late next year.

The final winner receives $1 million after spending seven weeks at some secret, remote outpost, outmaneuvering 16 other contestants while the cameras roll. Producers still plumb the psyche of aspiring survivors, however.

“Are you a vegetarian? Describe your perfect day. If you were stranded, who would you most want to be stranded with?” they ask in the lengthy “Survivor” application.

But the show remains the king of the reality heap.

More than 25 million people watched the conclusion of the show’s “Pearl Islands” edition last week, according to Nielsen, beating NBC’s “Average Joe” with 17.4 million viewers and ABC’s “The Bachelorette, seen by 17.1 million.

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