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Reality TV shows could lead networks into the wired world

Reality TV shows could lead networks into the wired world–”Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” was one of a few shows worldwide that has started to tap into the Web

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I have seen the future of interactive television — and Fox just canceled it. Not that Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? deserves a second chance; in truth, it should have been annulled before it ever aired. But the way the show tentatively tapped into the Web — and, more spectacularly, the manner in which pseudo-groom Rick Rockwell’s shady past unraveled thanks to online reporting — was as sadistically entertaining as the two-hour show itself. And as the controversial new ”reality game show” genre continues to mutate across the networks, the potential exists for genuine online interaction, without the need for special set-top boxes or plug-in software. If programming execs have the stomach for it, that is.

Lord knows, the audience is there. No one promoted Multi-Millionaire as a grand experiment in convergence, but enough of the special’s 23 million viewers logged on to the official site (www.whowantstomarry.com) after the show aired that it was quickly rendered as inaccessible as Yahoo! during the previous week’s hacker attacks. If only Fox had had the foresight to create a site as audacious as Rockwell’s resume, the whole mess might have turned out differently. Instead of letting those amazingly thorough dirt diggers at The Smoking Gun uncover the groom’s restraining order, Fox could have leaked it to the public right from its own Web pulpit. Heck, it could have sent the bride and groom on their honeymoon cruise with a camera crew and webcast the whole shebang. That way Rockwell could’ve defended himself directly to the public. Instead, he was fed to the 10 o’clock-news sharks.

This model of a creative, cross-platform interactive experience already exists — in the original European versions of the game shows the networks are now readying for Stateside delectation. Holland’s Big Brother, which stuck nine people in a house for 100 days with no connection to the outside world except cameras and mikes, has spawned scores of fan pages, games, parodies, and hate sites. Similarly, the Swedish TV hit Expedition: Robinson helps viewers keep tabs on its island castaways via a gorgeously designed, Flash-heavy website (www.svt.se/noje/robinson). In other words, CBS, which is developing U.S. versions of both shows for the summer, has its work cut out for it. It could rise to the challenge, though: Its website for Survivor (www.cbs.com/network/tvshows/mini/survivor), a Robinson reworking where 16 marooned people compete to survive (and become the most popular!), already has a social psychologist weighing in on what effect the program will have on both the contestants and the audience. Perhaps that will mentally prepare us for the U.S. version of Big Brother, which will allow us to watch the housemates’ shenanigans round the clock via the Internet, then vote on who should stay or go.

In one sense, this trend represents the mainstreaming of such small-scale online phenoms as Here and Now (www.hereandnow.net), the live Web feed of a house full of students in Ohio. More tellingly, Multi-Millionaire and the shows to follow are offering a pinhole peek of what TV may look like once everyone is wired with high-speed Internet access, owns a digital video recorder — and has an online resume that winds up on the front page of The Smoking Gun.

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