“Spiking the Narrative”

Jack Kibble-White interviews David Bodycombe, Simon Goodman and Jerry Glover

First published December 2003

David Bodycombe is the owner of Labyrinth Games, a games consultancy providing formats and content for TV, radio, interactive and print media. He has worked on The Crystal Maze, The Mole and Treasure Hunt. He has also helped develop the game script for interactive challenges to accompany BBC documentaries such as Pyramid, Pompeii and Colosseum (the latter two to be broadcast later this year) and the children’s reality game show Starfinder.

Simon Goodman and Jerry Glover are creative partners and co-founders of format and tv/film production outfit Gag Productions Ltd. They are the creators and executive producers of Public Property, Win Your Life Back and IOU in the UK and the US, and they also co-devised the Channel 4 show Something for the Weekend. Their latest reality project Casino, Casino for Flextech Television is a game show drama hybrid set in the fictitious world of a high roller’s room.

OTT: When devising a reality game show do you consider how the contestant’s “character” should change and grow over the course of the game?

JERRY GLOVER: With a reality game the key is in the inter-relationships between the contestants. What we’re really interested in is human behaviour and how the audience gets involved with that. What side of them do we want to see blossom via the game: their sexy side, their devious side, their generosity, their bravery. Since there’s often a prize at stake you want the game to be the neatest facilitator of the traits you’re interested in. Casting, obviously, is very important and necessarily involves some stereotyping because as viewers we rapidly lock onto characters whose traits we identify with.

DAVID BODYCOMBE: That’s a natural thing that should develop in the same way that your opinions of someone will change if you meet them in real life for the first time. They’ll either conform or rebuff your initial impression by feeding you information about their past and present over time. Maybe they look like accountant and that’s exactly what they are, but maybe you didn’t realise their father died when they were three. The one (and possibly only!) thing that was interesting about this year’s Big Brother was how much in the background one of the favourites (Scott) was. In these popularity game shows it seems it’s not so much trying to be popular but avoiding being hated.

SIMON GOODMAN: Character development is as important in reality shows as it is in narrative drama. The difference with an unscripted show is that the evolution is unpredictable. A good reality show creates the conditions for change through the show’s premise the format spikes. But because you’re dealing with human beings (as opposed to actors!) you can’t force them into anything. Capitalizing on this serendipity is vital in keeping a reality show interesting for the audience. If the audience feels that you are manipulating the characters’ responses the show stops being interesting and they feel cheated. Character conflict, as in drama, is crucial. Casting type against type. That’s why Big Brother 4 was crap. It was a love-in and that’s dull. There were no surprises. Audiences expect the characters in a reality show to do the unpredictable; it creates event television. Part of the trick as reality producers is learning to be flexible with your storylines. No matter how much you plan, it is important to rewrite the narrative arc and respond on a day to day basis to the actions of your cast. It is a much more interactive kind of story telling.

OTT: What elements are used in reality game shows to “progress the narrative” and lead the “plot” towards a climax (an example I can think of here is the round-by-round, episode-by-episode, or indeed week-by-week elimination of contestants)?

JERRY GLOVER: You want to know the “beats” of the show: the plot points. Into those you add the twists, the surprises that keep the narrative from flagging and becoming monotonous. These can be tasks the contestants must perform to progress, conditions they must fulfil in order to succeed.

DAVID BODYCOMBE: I have a theory that a game show can only progress in two ways: start fast finish slow, or start slow finish fast. Most reality shows take the former approach, hence the need for elimination in most formats. Big Brother is easily an example of that – during the latter weeks practically everything has been said so the contestants get a little bored (a bug producers have had some success fixing in subsequent series). However, there are ways in which a reality show can speed up towards the end. For example, in Murder in Small Town X/The Murder Game, a lot of information starts to unravel in the final show before the murderer is revealed.

SIMON GOODMAN: Accelerating the jeopardy curve as the series or episode progresses is important to further the narrative. The stakes should get higher as the show progresses. Not enough shows do this properly. Faking It achieves this by building to a final trial or test. Every episode without fail, the day or two before the final test everything goes horribly wrong. It’s all in the edit but it works. It helps make it look like they are about to face the impossible, making for a more dramatic and uplifting conclusion. However you have to vary the pattern of the dramatic beats or the audience will feel cheated. Faking It series two was too formulaic. We called it Milking It in my house and preferred to watch Men and Motors instead.

Time is a great factor to progress narrative. Some of these shows only really get going after – for example – the celebrities have been in the jungle for a week and are really hungry and are starting to get on each others tits. That’s why you find ratings increasing for the final episodes. Like scripted narrative, it’s more immediate to come into an active story, rather than waste time on lengthy exposition. The first few weeks/episodes of reality shows should never be an extended trailer for the dénouement of your story. Fame Academy is the prime offender here. No one watched the series but everyone wanted to see the final episode. But what the hell, it was enough to get it recommissioned (although perhaps not again!)

Compressing real time by spiking the narrative with curve balls to increase the speed at which people naturally interact with each other is a good trick. Ways to make participants bond faster or hate each other quicker keep us interested. In the US version of Big Brother after the housemates settled in they brought in their ex girlfriends and boyfriends to accelerate the stress curve.

The elimination vote-out mechanic is the current trend. It hits the same emotional beats as the killer in a slasher movie picking off the teenagers in low cut T-shirts one by one. It’s pretty obvious to say, but it works because it engages us through interactivity. As we whittle down the contestants, we emotionally start to back our favourites and that keeps us interested and committed to returning to the show.

OTT: How accepting are viewers of game shows that are set in an explicitly fictional settings (ie. The Murder Game, Scavengers etc)? Is there a difference in the level of acceptance between UK and US audiences?

JERRY GLOVER: There is definitely an audience for game shows in fictional settings (Simon and I always speak fondly of The Adventure Game, the BBC’s SF gameshow from the early ’80s). This audience that enjoys this kind of show will often be loyal to a point where cult followings can develop. This portion of viewers, however, are in the minority, and most broadcasters are very wary indeed of commissioning shows that they consider to have a high level of contrivance, no matter how creative and genre-busting they may be. Obviously, there have been some brave and creative attempts to evolve the genre (like The Murder Game), but these are the exception. What we tend to hear from broadcasters and co-producers – especially in the US – is for shows to be made more “realistic”, that is to have more explicit connections to everyday reality. Having said this, we are developing several shows with a foot in both reality and fiction, as we believe that finding the right balance between the two will open up some very exciting and audience-appealing areas. After all, isn’t the distinction between reality and fiction being blurred all the time on the news media by the propaganda-spin establishment? Yet as a creator of reality shows you have to be conscious of not being too clever.

DAVID BODYCOMBE: The setting itself isn’t hugely relevant. The trick is to ensure that the people within the world are entirely believable. For example, John Leslie was wholly unconvincing as a star ship commander in Scavengers. I felt the actors in The Murder Game did a reasonable job. One tip is to not push the fictional side too much – for example, when pitching an idea like The Crystal Maze don’t say “… and hey, there’s this woman that’s Richard’s mother who lives in the Medieval zone and she’s a fortune teller, then there’s Ralph the Butler …” Likewise, in The Mole the essence was “this was a game” not “you are secret spies and will be rewarded with cash from a secret government department.” A lot of the back story should, where possible, evolve naturally.

There needs to be a more “filmic” look if you’re going to do a fictional setting in the US. Remember that your show can’t look too cheap compared to CSI or a Hollywood movie on the other side, so there’s a benchmark to compete against. This is possibly why Fear Factor‘s done very well in the US because it uses big screen stunts as the challenges. In the UK we have a more realistic acceptance that what we see at the cinema and what we see on TV are two very different things. The West Wing could be a film, Spooks could not. However, that can lead mislead UK producers into thinking they can skimp too far – for example ITV1′s Mr Right set on the South Bank of the Thames was a disaster compared to BBC3′s more sun-drenched The Bachelor.

SIMON GOODMAN: As long as the line you tread with the fictitious elements have a strong element of realism it can work. Otherwise it can turn into pantomime. That was the trouble with The Murder Game, you can’t actually commit real murder (even in the name of television). I’m sceptical that contestants, let alone audiences, can suspend disbelief for the arc of an entire series. Don’t forget contestants are not actors. Can they really be consistently convincing in a fictitious environment? After a while they look like sad middle managers on a role-playing away day. Watching The Murder Game was like watching 10 David Brents on an office management course.

OTT: The Murder Game and its American predecessor both failed to attract a significant audience even though the “whodunit” is still a popular television drama genre. Why do you think the audience failed to engage with these series? Was the plot to linear, too “on rails”?

JERRY GLOVER: The plot was indeed too linear in that, if the players failed to find a clue, the production would be compelled to uncover it anyway in order to keep the prepared plot on track. This kind of “spoon feeding” created the sensation in the audience of feeling blatantly cheated, of there being no real consequences to the players’ actions. There was also the nagging sensation that the show construct was more fun for the players within it than the audience watching. This again gave the audience the sensation of feeling “cheated”. When you’re devising a reality game you’re asking yourself “is this more fun for the participants than the audience?” If the answer’s yes, there can be a problem because what you’re meant to be doing foremost is creating a great television show, not a theme park experience. Perhaps if the audience had been kept one or two steps ahead of the players in their knowledge of the wider plot scheme the show may have been more engaging.

Another factor that kept viewers from really engaging with The Murder Game, I think, was how the show toyed dangerously with the basic conventions that make a great whodunnit so successful as entertainment. The blend of game, reality, drama, and horror in the finale was, I guess, too rich a concoction for the audience who tuned-in expecting a more conventional formula. Instead of a single brilliant Poirot pitting their wits in a cat-and-mouse game, you had a bickering rag-tag of Clouseaus who were encouraged to spend as much time making snide comments about each other as they were making brilliant deductive leaps. Clearly by doing this they were trying to get the Big Brother audience and the armchair sleuths and the Saturday night horror fans with the Blair Witch-inspired “killer’s game”, without really satisfying anyone. It’s the peril of mixing and matching genres.

DAVID BODYCOMBE: Personally, I’d have been tempted to do a whodunnit show as a series of one-off episodes where each story is self-contained. Even successful programmes such as The Mole have struggled to get recommissions because the audience figures work on the basis of diminishing returns – only 90% of your current audience are likely to tune in next week. New viewers are hard won because you need to catch up on the backstory to join in (something that’s not particularly necessary with Big Brother).

Regarding linear plots, there’s always a danger of “oh, and one other thing …” However, linear plots can be incredibly creative things if you’re prepared to put in the work on the re-writes. This September saw the start of Starfinder on ITV1, a combined reality/challenge show for kids where they get to perform space missions using computer simulations and hands-on games. In between challenges, the contestants “live” on the space set, more in the Big Brother fashion (they’re only allowed out at the end of the recording day). After one challenge, involving remote control buggies to scoop up radioactive material, one of the children opened the door of the “contaminated” room so that she could “see what the little trucks look like”. So the producer rewrote the script and put the irradiated contestant in solitary for the next game! I was largely disappointed by The Murder Game even though they had done a good job with making the show more challenge-based than the US original. Silly continuity and editing errors spoilt the clarity of the solution. For example, the key witness saw the victim get out of a car several hours after her death. Moreover, the answer revolved around phone records which the viewers did not have access to – not even on the website. How was that supposed to link into their pre-show advertising blurb of “spot the clue, solve the case”?

SIMON GOODMAN: The balance was all wrong. The emphasis was on the contestants (the reality element) and relied on them to create the narrative. Unless they found the clues, there was no plot development. So if you want to move the plot on you have to hand them the clues they need on a plate. And that’s not real. Part of the satisfaction of a murder mystery drama is enjoying the ingenuity and brilliant minds of the protagonists solving the case.

OTT: Are there any similarities between writing a television drama and devising a game show? If so, what are they?

JERRY GLOVER: I can’t really see any correlation. Game devising involves creating situations, mechanisms, and rules. Building scenarios in which all variety of possible outcomes must be envisaged. So there’s a lot of closing off doors – “what if such-and-such happens, will it derail our format?” – that kind of thing. It’s a very different set of skills to those of drama. I see it as being more like war-gaming, a heavy degree of strategic planning.

DAVID BODYCOMBE: As things stand, I would say not because I’m unconvinced that a Casualty scriptwriter could come up with a decent game show, and that a format developer could write an episode of Casualty. While there are some transferable skills between the two, there haven’t been enough drama-entertainment crossovers for them to live in their own category.

SIMON GOODMAN: Yes, in both cases you have to deal with the whims and impossible demands of network executives.

OTT: Do the “rules” of storytelling (three acts, the central character must show some progression etc) apply equally to the rules of creating a game show?

JERRY GLOVER: To an extent. All game formats have an arc, as do dramas; not necessarily played out in three acts. The characters don’t have to change as such. It’s more that you subjecting them to a unique experience through which they will hopefully see a side of themselves they never knew they had.

DAVID BODYCOMBE: This I would agree with. Many game show formats – not just reality shows – use theatrical methods, so it would follow that storytelling and cinematic techniques have much to offer. While this influence is obvious to see in the new wave of formats such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire (eg. the musical score going up by one semitone per round – a classic movie music device), drama was used even back in the 1950s shows such as Twenty One (for which the dramatic voice-over and orchestration at the start is a good example).

SIMON GOODMAN: The only rule for a successful game show is to break the rules as much as you can. Good casting is the real key to success. In a scripted show a good script can sometimes carry a mediocre actor. If a participant in a reality show is mediocre you’ve got no story.