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The TV talk of the summer has been how the Fox Network brazenly copied ABC’s upcoming reality show “Wife Swap” (in which wives change families for a few weeks), named the show “Trading Spouses,” and rushed it onto the air this summer, scooping ABC and landing a hit. While ABC licks its programming wounds, it should note that there are still plenty of as-yet-undeveloped reality TV premises that it could scoop Fox on to get even. For example:
Contestants: Indicted or, preferably, convicted CEOs, CFOs and other corporate crooks who stole millions from stockholders, retirees and employees.
Premise: Each boss competes for the loyalty and approval of a pre-selected, composite workforce. The workforce votes each week, giving the most points to the boss who shows the most integrity, leadership, and sensitivity to workers’ needs and concerns. Thus, each week, a boss is fired. At first Kenneth Lay tries to win them over with stock options, and all the workers laugh in his face and yell, “You’re fired.” Pretty soon the competition gets ugly, as the CEOs find themselves offering flex time, on-site daycare centers, healthcare benefits comparable to those enjoyed by the U.S. Senate, and, in the winning gambit, paid maternity and paternity leave.
The Real Fear Factor
Contestants: Republican members of the House and Senate (preference given to those with the most macho rhetoric).
Premise: Contestants are fitted with an electronic “fear-o-meter” and then dispatched to places that have especially benefited from their policies. To add to the excitement, contestants must wear big signs on their backs that say “Bush/Cheney 2004.” Destinations include Sudan, Najaf, Gaza, South Central Los Angeles, Detroit, Ciudad Juárez, rural Nebraska, Paris and Amherst, Massachusetts.
Evangelical Real World
Contestants: High-level Moral Majority-Christian Coalition types and religious right leaders.
Premise: Contestants are thrown together in the Playboy Mansion to see how they hold up in such a den of iniquity. The twist? Contestants don’t know about the hidden cameras, especially the ones in the hot tub, stables and chapel. In what the contestants will later charge was highly unfair editing, pronouncements about the sins of gay marriage and the benefits of “abstinence only” sex-ed programs are spliced together with the hidden-camera footage of teenage male lovers ducking out the back door and the lap dancing parties in the chapel. Even Fox feels it can’t air the footage from the stables.
The Policy Swan
Contestants: All of the recent contestants from MTV’s “The Real World,” “Fraternity Life” and “Room Raiders.”
Premise: Who can be transformed from self-absorbed ignoramus to the Policy Swan? Contestants who previously were totally preoccupied with how much beer they could drink in four minutes, or who was really hot, are forced to read newspapers and nonfiction books about politics and the economy, work in homeless shelters and intern with Maxine Waters, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel or Carl Levin. In the grand finale, they are grilled by Victor Navasky, Paul Krugman and Barbara Ehrenreich, and the winner actually gets a million bucks for being knowledgeable and smart.
Female Eye for Any Guy
Contestants: Any man who thinks feminism is unnecessary, outdated or irrelevant.
Premise: Using some of the surgical and makeup techniques pioneered in Extreme Makeover and The Swan, men are temporarily turned into women, complete with breasts and a uterus. Their challenges include: walking past a construction site, working for Wal-Mart and asking about their promotion plan, nursing a baby while holding down a job, trying to find decent, affordable daycare, living with an abusive and unemployed husband and moving to a homeless shelter with two kids because their welfare benefits have run out. The man who meets these challenges while smiling all the time, getting into Size 4 pants and insisting “I’m not a feminist, but…” wins.
High School Roulette
Contestants: High school students from swanky private schools and from inner city, predominantly black or Latino schools.
Premise: Sophomores from the private schools and inner-city schools trade places for three years and the cameras follow them around, comparing facilities, classes, quality of books, athletic, art and music programs. The ones who get into college win.
Contestants: Anyone who has ever been to an anti-war, anti-WTO, anti-sweat shop, anti-Bush demonstration or rally, is on the MoveOn.org list serve, or has expressed the opinion that Bush is an incompetent, unprincipled liar and fraud.
Premise: Cameras accompany FBI agents as they knock on the doors of surprised college students or Grey Panthers and tell them they are under surveillance, could be arrested at any time, and better not show up in New York during the Republican convention or say anything, ever again, about, well, anything.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.