Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to make Wipeout a good television show

Summer television fare is, well there are few things to describe it that don’t immediately bring up images of garbage. It used to be networks simply repeated their regular season series, simply giving up on ratings. But then reality television exploded on the market, giving the networks something to cheaply produce, and giving the audience something new to watch.

Say what you want about the current crop of reality television shows. I’m not here to denounce the entire genre (is it considered a genre?). The debate of whether people enjoy reality television for its worth, or simply because that’s what’s on at the moment is not going to be broached here. I don’t have nearly enough psychology doctorates to come up with a sane thesis on the matter anyway. What am I here to do is look at one of the more recent offerings of reality television, called Wipeout.

Wipeout is ABC’s latest attempt to cash in on a cheaply produced show that features regular people falling down, slipping into pools of mud, getting punched in a variety of places on their body and generally making fools of themselves. The immediate problem that I have with the show is that it’s just interesting enough to make me want to tweak it into a success. Unfortunately, I don’t have that power (ABC executives, if you’re reading, I have a couple notes that probably wouldn’t even cost too much), so I’m just left with ranting about it here.

The premise of the show is simple: ordinary people run through try to complete different obstacles in the fastest time to continue on to the next round. Each round eliminates a number of contestants, until we’re left with four individuals who take on the grand finale course. The one with the best time wins 50,000, and probably some sort of post traumatic stress syndrome (being attached to something that spins at a high speed repeatedly has to do something to your insides).

The show brings to mind a similar type game show, called Ninja Warrior, exported from Japan. This show too shows people attempting to best a number of obstacles

Now, while I’m not 100% sure, I assume ABC took it’s influence from the popular Japanese game show Ninja Warrior. This show, popular on the G4 network, is similar in people are competing against a challenging series of obstacles that get increasingly harder after each round. Here’s an example of Ninja Warrior, a montage of Nagano, one of two contestants to ever win. You can see the seriousness and challenge one must face:

And here’s an example of Wipeout:

Obviously, you can see both the similarities and differences. But they don’t stop there. With Wipeout, there is a winner every week; with Ninja Warrior, in the 20 seasons it has been on, it has only been completed twice. And that fact, not only highlights the difference between the shows, but also between cultures. I doubt the American viewing audience would have the patience or the respect needed to watch failure after failure of people attempting the best a course. I’m also guessing that’s why the producers of Wipeout gave each show a definitive winner. So I’m not going to suggest to make Wipeout a better show to change those things.

But I will suggest Wipeout could borrow a few things of Ninja Warrior and become a much more popular show. So here’s what I would do to make Wipeout better…

Make obstacles achievable.

I understand that there is a lot of humor watching someone do a head first dive into a pool of mud. I’m not above laughing at that myself. But when every competitor falls into mud, it begins the act begins to lose its appeal. The problem with Wipeout’s first course of obstacles is that they’re designed to be next to impossible to complete. Competitors routinely attempt an obstacle, fall off and then are left to swim or trudge to the next. Completing the course then becomes a competition against the clock and not the obstacles. So rather than build any kind of minor tension to see if someone can finish the course, the viewer is left with simply waiting for the contestant to fail. And while the failure is often spectacularly painful looking, it will eventually become redundant, and viewers will start looking to NCIS for their entertainment.

Have a healthy respect for the obstacles.

I don’t know if contestants are told to have fun with the course, or producers screen for a certain type of person, but so far everyone I’ve seen on the show has been fairly stupid, fairly ignorant or a combination of both. It seems that the show doesn’t know whether to be a comedy or a sporting event, and not making that decision waters the entire show down. The absurdity of obstacles and falls of contestants will always breed comedy; I don’t need average people trying to be funny. That just makes it more unfunny. And speaking of funny…

Get rid of the current announcers.

Not only is it obviously scripted and then taped to be played later, Jon Anderson and John Henson are the wrong fit for this show. Snarky attitude and scripted jokes take the joy out of allowing the viewer to make those jokes while watching. Bring in a real play-by-play person, have him announce the situation while it happens, and comedy will come through the spontaneity of it all. Heck, maybe these two are the right choice in this format. But scripting the show hurts the entire vibe of the competition, and it’s difficult to focus on the individuals competing. I’m interested in seeing them try these goofy things and seeing how far they can actually make it. Let the announcers be in the moment.

Bring in a live audience.

I think the creepiest thing for me is the fact that this giant course appears to be out in the middle of nowhere, and the contestants are shipped in ala Running Man. Seriously, why not hold the competition in front of an audience react to what’s going on? It would add to the level of excitement and get a buzz going.

As I said before, I don’t think Wipeout is bad, but I do think it will have a short shelf life if it doesn’t make some changes. Already after watching it twice I’ve caught myself wondering if the Law & Order episode on TNT is one I’ve only seen 4 times before. Tweak now, or look for another show to run into the ground next summer.

No comments: