It can't be a coincidence.
Every time you flip the dial, a new reality TV show is being turned loose on the viewing public. Critics have castigated the programs for being sleazy, tawdry, naughty, an affront to morals, despicable, boring, greedy and totally guilty of bringing out the worst character traits in contestants. Viewers have responded in kind by tuning in in droves and making several reality TV programs rating hits. But if discerning viewers start to shift through the human refuse that make up most of the shows' do-anything-for-exposure casts, something very interesting starts to appear on the TV screen.
There are actually Midwesterners on them-thar shows. Wholesome, God-fearing folks, and an amazing number of them are from Kansas. What gives? Is it an accident? Or is it some casting directors' sneaky way of packaging the programs to make them a bit more innocent?
Kathryn Price thinks it is the latter. And she should know. Price recently spent several weeks on ABC's sabotage series, "The Mole." In the prime-time hit, real people solved clues, trying to guess which member of the group was the mole who was trying to undermine their goals. Price turned out to be the mole, the fiend that purposely lied and cheated at the direction of producers in order to thwart her teammates' earnest efforts.
Price is smart, attractive and a graduate of Kansas University. She is originally from Wichita.
"I think they liked the contrast that I provided. I had a certain Midwest wholesome demeanor," Price says during a recent phone interview. So just forget about her political science degree or her law degree from Stanford, what producers went for was that sweet, farm-fresh veneer. And it worked. Price coupled her obvious brains with an innocent sheen and kept fellow contestants from earning a $1 million prize.
Now she's fielding offers from literary and acting agents. She's hoping to do a behind-the-scenes book on "The Mole," and she's already working on screenplays. The face time has given her career options in something other than law.
"I had a literary agent call me today," Price says. "That would not have happened before."
The Kansas connection
It's a mutually agreeable pact these contestants are making with Hollywood. Andy Warhol said everyone would get 15 minutes of fame. And people are now so media-savvy that they take that clichtatement almost as a birthright. And they are lining up to get their faces into the latest reality TV show or "unscripted TV" as the genre is sometimes called. It is seemingly a win-win-win situation. Students and teachers and homemakers and doctors get exposure and instant celebrity. If the girls are pretty then there is always that multimillion Playboy pictorial lingering in their future. And producers get hit TV shows using non-scripted actors and writers. (More on that later.)
So where do these Kansas natives come into play? It's an untested theory to be sure, but they do seem to add a real untainted look in amongst all the would-be actors using the shows as just another audition. Want proof that it's not a coincidence? Just look at the evidence:
l Megan Denton recently appeared as one of the temptresses on Fox's wacky sleazefest "Temptation Island." She was a KU Crimson Girl hailing from Ottawa. When she isn't bouncing around Belize beaches in bikinis, she works as a kindergarten teacher. (No, we're not making that up.)
l Kasey Brown is a KU graduate and is now on "Boot Camp." The pixyish young woman is going head-to-head with maniacal drill sergeants in the hopes of a big payoff in exposure and money. She used to work for the Lawrence children's theater company, the Seem-To-Be-Players. (She is not allowed to do interviews until after the series concludes.)
l B.B. Anderson was one of the first to get booted off the island in last season's "Survivor." He's a Kansas City businessman.
l Kelley Limp was a housemate this season on MTV's "Real World." She's a former KU student.
And finally there is Kansas' latest entry into the reality TV wars, Khadija Abuyousif, a KU freshman majoring in journalism. She appeared last year in MTV's "Fashionably Loud," and when she went on spring break to Cancun last month, a casting director approached her about being on "Spring Fling Survivor."
"It's kind of a cross between 'Temptation Island' and 'Survivor,'" Abuyousif says.
On the show, a couple was selected and their relationship tested by allowing both the girl and guy to go on a series of dates. Abuyousif ended up being the guy's dream date. They ate lobster, went clubbing and later kissed and then the guy went back and broke up with his girlfriend.
"That's what I was there for," Abuyousif says matter-of-factly. "We were in paradise. We hung out and had a lot of fun. I couldn't imagine saying no to that."
And then there was that wholesome Kansas thing she had going that made her stand out. MTV's programming is famous for beer bongs and tiny thongs, but Abuyousif wasn't afraid of what her family might think.
"My mom knows I'm not going to go on TV and do anything weird with whipped cream," she says.
So factor in restraint among the talents those casting directors seek among the Kansas contestants. To hear Denton tell it, no matter what happened on "Temptation Island," she knew she wasn't going to embarrass herself.
"It's not all the drama that they show it to be," Denton says. "A casting director I had worked with before approached me about it. Basically it was going to be a very nice two-week vacation. I could sit in L.A. or I could go to Belize. It was not a hard decision."
Still, the producers' decision to play up the sex and sleaze put her a bit on the defensive.
"It's not so scandalous. It just looks that way because that's the way they cut it. I knew that once it came out, it would not live up to the direction it was going," Denton says.
Abuyousif went through some anxious moments, also, because she worried about how the editors' cutting decisions would influence the course of the show.
"It was really emotional," she says. "I wondered how they would show the good and bad parts. I'm happy with how it turned out, because I don't want to be thought of as a homewrecker."
Contestants also score a lot of great perks out of the whole show concept. For "Temptation Island," Denton earned the opportunity to go along on planned group activities that included jet skiing, motor boats and beach volleyball. And the girls actually wanted to get chosen as a date, because that meant screen time focused just on them. It also meant participating in elaborate on-camera events, such as enjoying moonlit dinners that were catered right on the beach. Denton actually ended up going on dates with three of the show's four eligible bachelors.
It was enough to take her mind off all the nasty names she was being called by late-night talk show hosts. (David Letterman would often refer to the temptresses as "hookers.")
"I had to keep in mind not to take it personally," she says. "I know what I should feel embarrassed about. It's just an image. It's not the real me. It's just TV."
The appeal of reality shows are that they give everyone a chance to be a celebrity. And even Midwesterners want a shot at that. Some come from normal careers but then see what TV can do for them. Price was going to teach law, now she's choosing to remain unemployed while she sees how her media options play out. The first season cast of "Survivor" is cashing in with TV and radio hosting gigs, celebrity appearances, advertisements and even movie roles. It can be a short cut to a lucrative career.
Abuyousif also is picking up on the role TV could play in her life. It seems that every time she takes a trip, she gets cast in a show. Could there be more of that in her future?
"I'd love to do TV," she says enthusiastically. "But I have no plans for awhile. I don't want to get known as the 'spring break girl.'"
Critics argue that there really are no real people on TV. Either they are actors and models to begin with, or they come in with average careers, and when the cameras role the contestants start acting anyway. Last year's "Survivor" featured a doctor who has been plugging TV scripts as a hobby for years. He saw it as a chance to get his pilot ideas produced. This year's "Survivor" featured buff Jerri Manthey, an aspiring actress, while "Temptation Island" was flush with performers. Although Denton did not act while she was at KU, she's now ensconced in the L.A. scene. She's danced as an L.A. Lakers girl and had bit parts in "BASEketball" and "Bowfinger," along with an appearance on, ironically, "The Dating Game."
"When you put yourself into a more visible position, that's a good thing," she says. "It's opened some doors and gained me some auditions."
Money, money, money
For producers, it's all about the bottom line. Reality fare is cheap, fast and easy to produce in comparison to a one-hour traditional drama. They use non-union, non-actors and non-union, non-writers and save on production costs. What they shell out in travel fare, accommodations and prizes is piffle compared to what they pay a regular TV cast each week.
And viewers like the finished product, so it makes good business sense to keep producing them. Since many of the shows have scored boffo ratings, advertisers will spend about anything for airtime around one of the shows. That means the networks also score big financial payoffs by running so much reality TV.
So despite the critics and their pleas for some sort of cultural revival, and baring some miraculous sudden interest in developing good, tasteful viewing habits by TV watchers, it looks like unscripted shows could be much more than a fad. It may end up becoming a permanent part of the nation's television diet. "Temptation Island" is gearing for a sequel, "Survivor" will definitely be back for round three, and new shows like "Boot Camp" are popping up all the time. Even the woeful "Big Brother" is rumored to be coming back for another try in the ratings wars.
As the current writer's strike looms on the horizon, and with actors planning to walk out with them on solidarity issues, producers are cramming in as much reality TV as possible because it allows them to skirt all sorts of union production concerns.
There is a backlash occurring over that in Hollywood, Denton says.
"With a production strike, reality shows take away from work. I'm experiencing a strange mix of being shunned, and curiosity also shown to me about having been on one. There is animosity out here to reality shows. I'm taking it a step at a time, just trying to be seen and heard," she says.
With her insider's view, maybe Denton can solve the riddle of why people tune in to so much reality TV?
"People want soap operas. They want to see real people in real dramas. They can identify with them without having to go through the same experience," she says. "It answers the question of 'what if?' without them actually having to do it themselves."
Ultimately, that means that more and more reality TV programs will provide further opportunities for regular people to get in on the celebrity-making process. And if an auditioner happens to be from Kansas, then the odds of them showing up on the small screen in the future is pretty much a sure thing. Is everyone ready for their close-up?