A ST:HYPERTEXT EXCLUSIVE REPORT
LOS ANGELES — Look out, TV networks: UPN is re-entering the reality fray.
The battered United Paramount Network, nearing the end of a tough 2002-03 season of plunging ratings where it consistently lost to chief rival The WB, announced Tuesday that it will finally return this fall to the reality television front in its upcoming battle for new viewers.
UPN's most notable reality series to date was spring 2001's short-lived Chains of Love, which featured the finalists in a dating contest literally chained together for a week with their prospective date before the would-be date would make his or her final selection. It was a ratings and creative disaster no one paid much attention to, and UPN has not returned to the reality TV game since, despite the ever-growing popularity of such shows on the broadcast networks.
But that's about to change, said UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff, who considers a new reality initiative to be the struggling network's new top priority.
"We're proud to announce an exciting and completely unprecedented take on the concept of reality television programming," said Ostroff. "We expect this new show, scheduled to debut Sept. 24, will become the model for reality programming in the decade to come. The ratings war is on, and it's time for us to strike back."
The new reality program in question: Enterprise.
The third season of Enterprise will premiere with a complete change of format, Ostroff and the show's producers have said. According to series co-creator and executive producer Rick Berman, the second season will end with a cliffhanger that will be "startling" and "will put a new twist on the series as it enters its third year."
Inside sources have indicated that the season two finale will center on a time-travel story that takes the Enterprise crew back to the early 21st century, specifically the year 2003, where they find themselves lost in Los Angeles. According to sources, season two will end with the Enterprise characters being mistaken for actors who work for Paramount Pictures, and the characters will be asked by studio executives (played by guest actors) to star in a new reality series. The cliffhanger, titled "The Expanse," airs May 21.
At this point, fiction blends into fact: The third season will begin in its new format as an actual reality series, starring the current cast and featuring a new host of amateur unknowns who are destined to become instant celebrities.
The concept for the third-season premiere, titled "Central Casting," will highlight a variety of real-life contestants as they prepare to audition for the roles of a brand-new Star Trek series, tentatively set to premiere as the sixth TV incarnation of the venerable Trek franchise during the 2004-05 television season. The new series' premise is currently unknown.
The actors who performed in the roles of the Enterprise characters will now serve as judges for the new Star Trek: Series VI talent search and competition. Enterprise in its new format will be renamed Star Trek: Franchises.
"I'm excited about it," said Enterprise co-creator and executive producer Brannon Braga of the new reality format. "This is exactly the shot in the arm that the Star Trek franchise needs right now. This isn't your father's Star Trek."
Co-executive producer John Shiban said he likes the concept of the second-season finale.
"It's the whole show-within-a-show idea, which of course goes back to the Shakespearean device of a play within a play," an enthusiastic Shiban said. "I think it's brilliant. It gets to the heart of what Star Trek is about — a sci-fi universe where anything is possible. Also, the fact that it's a self-referential piece of long-standing popular culture that demands this sort of in-jokey treatment. Beam me up, Scotty."
The producers of Star Trek: Franchises — many of which will be retained from Enterprise — will launch a nationwide talent search starting in early May. Regional finalists will be flown to Los Angeles for the more intense competition stages of the show, set to begin taping in July.
Financially, the changes already look promising to the network and studio.
"This is a budgetary dream," said Franchises supervising producer Merri D. Howard. "With only hand-held camera crews shooting on tape, a much smaller writing staff, more easily achieved lighting schemes and no special effects, we're likely to cut our production budget astronomically. We'll have to retain the original actors of course, since they're already under contract for the upcoming year, but most other costs should be hugely reduced."
UPN and the show's producers are elated at the possibilities, particularly since a multi-tiered cable deal has been struck to air the revamped series in one-week-delayed repeats on both TNN and MTV.
"Star Trek: Franchises is part American Idol, part Survivor, and part The Real World," said Braga. "Also Blind Date. It should play very well for the younger audiences, in both the male and female demographic areas."
The female audience has been notably lacking with UPN and with Enterprise, which ranks as one of the most male-skewed shows on television.
"Let's face it," continued Braga. "We need more relationships, and we need a sexier show. People want to know whether Alton and Irulan will stay together, or whether Steven just wants sex from Trishelle or if he really wants a deeper, more meaningful relationship. These are the sorts of exciting issues we can watch unfold in the show's new format. We'll have cameras following the contestants in their time away from the competitions so we can get snippets of their personal lives and watch the volatile roommate interaction."
Roommates will be mandatory for all contestants, the network has said. It's probable that contestants will be housed in "pretentious and chic" apartments in groups of seven (four women and three men). All apartments will be fully equipped with cameras and microphones to record the contestants. No contestant will have a last name.
But will the show live up to the previous Trek shows and particularly the much-respected "vision" developed by its original creator, Gene Roddenberry? The producers seem to think so.
"I think the new series is completely consistent with Gene's vision," said Berman. "In a sense, this is the most human show we'll have ever done, because it's about real human beings, and, furthermore, human beings that people watching TV today can truly relate to. The contestants will be much closer to ground level than your average Star Trek character, who is generally too formal, serious, and intelligent."
Already, the producers are hoping for current novel celebrities to fill some contestant slots.
"I'd love to get Trista [Rhen, of The Bachelorette] or Evan [Marriott, of Joe Millionaire] for the show," said Braga. "They're very popular. The public loves these people, so they'd be a great ratings draw for us. I absolutely love that these celebrities are famous simply for being on TV, and not because they have any sort of unique talent or ability. They're just regular people living the American dream, and what could be more positive than that and therefore more befitting of the Star Trek vision? We'd sign them on board in a heartbeat."
Not to worry, however, because the producers are confident that the current Enterprise cast will still have plenty of the spotlight to share.
"The current cast will be in every episode, serving as our very important judging panel and also participating in some competitions, so they're looking forward to it and so are we," said Berman. "Already, we have Jolene Blalock [who plays T'Pol] set up to judge a wet T-shirt contest. Or was she set to compete? I'll have to check the scripts."
In addition to Blalock, inside sources say that plans are in the works for other Enterprise cast members to judge contests that resemble their former characters' interests. Connor Trinneer, who plays chief engineer "Trip" Tucker, will reportedly judge a construction and engineering ingenuity contest similar to The Learning Channel's Junkyard Wars. Winners will receive new deluxe power tools courtesy of Black & Decker. (A tie-in promotional spot will feature Trinneer endorsing a Black & Decker power drill.)
Dominic Keating, who plays armory officer Malcolm Reed, will oversee an exciting new segment called "Tick-Tock" where contestants must correctly defuse artificial bomb props in the least amount of time. Losers will be covered in artificial soot and have their clothes ripped to tatters and then be required to ride Los Angeles public transportation back to their apartments (and six roommates). Bus schedules will be provided.
Linda Park, whose character Hoshi Sato was revealed in an episode as a prideful chef, will likely judge a segment inspired by NBC's Fear Factor. Said Park: "I'm not really much of a cook in real life, but I do enjoy sadistic humor, so I can't wait until I tell my group that they have to eat a cow's stomach lining filled with a quart of raw ostrich egg yolk. If only there were really such a thing as Klingon gagh."
Winners of the segment, called "What's Cooking?", may not vomit within 24 hours. Nor may viewers.
And Scott Bakula, always portraying a leader and man of action, will be the advantage bonus player in a team segment of the show in which contestants shoot it out at a paintball range. Players on the losing team may not change out of their paint-covered clothes until a date to be determined by the show's producers.
Winners of competition segments in each episode will receive a "warp core," which automatically protects a player from being "beamed off the soundstage" by the judging panel at the end of an episode. The voting ceremony will reportedly be shot on the transporter room set.
Plans for the other cast members are also in development, with the exception of Anthony Montgomery (who plays Ensign Travis Mayweather), for whom the producers have not yet settled on a specific role.
"I'm sure we can get Anthony to help us pick out the next series' African-American character," said Berman, "but for what competitions he'll judge or compete in, we're not quite sure yet."
Star Trek-related audition contests include grading on, among other things: The contestant who can best fake being hit by a phaser beam; the most convincing person in reciting two uninterrupted scripted pages of technobabble; the most tolerant subject in the make-up chair; contestant most impervious to pain in the "When Star Trek Stunts Go Bad" segment; and sing-off segments with former Voyager cast members Robert Picardo and Jeri Ryan.
Also, whether you are Hot or Not.
"What we're looking to do here is create the ultimate, most comprehensive reality show yet brought to television," said Ostroff. "This will be the most unbelievable reality show you will ever have seen. We're doing everything. It's real, but you won't believe your eyes.
"Plus, it's on UPN."
Ostroff continued: "The best idea we've had so far was a brilliant plan to get some contestants to the front lines in Iraq as assistant embedded journalists."
Timing, however, may prevent the segment from being realized.
"I'm not sure if the war will coincide with our taping schedule," Ostroff said. "And even if the war is still going on in August or September, I don't expect it will be fresh television by then."
Ostroff dismissed Internet reports alleging that war segments would be dubbed "Star Trek: Shock and Awe."
If things go according to plan and Star Trek: Franchises is a success, the studio anticipates that by the end of the 2003-04 season, the current Enterprise cast is likely to be unnecessary and therefore not signed for a fourth season.
"At that point we'll have to see, but I envision a new realm for Trek to explore," said Ostroff. "The simple fact is that in television today, most shows are not expected to last three or even two seasons, let alone seven. What we are doing with Enterprise is changing it to a new, highly renewable format where we can swap the casts out every season or two and spin out a completely new and exciting premise.
"If I had to guess right now where Series VI would take us, I would say it would probably be more of a romantic-themed show like The Bachelor or Joe Millionaire, except with a dramatic science-fiction theme underneath. And action and competition, too. Probably within a season or two after that we would have Series VIII or Series IX where our latest chosen cast would then choose yet a newer cast for a completely new upcoming Star Trek reality series. The possibilities are endless."
Ultimately, however, the idea is to make UPN more profitable through what executives are calling "cascading reality programming."
"If this programming concept works the way we hope it does, we would eventually remove all existing science-fiction and ideological elements," Ostroff said. "Actually, we will already be doing much of that for Franchises except that Trek knowledge will be a part of the competitions since the contestants will be auditioning for a part in a new Star Trek show.
"But the ultimate goal is to have a reality franchise where the contestants are simply competing for slots in new and exciting reality shows. That's the sort of enduring cycle we're looking for, and if we can utilize Star Trek to reach that point, all the better for us and the Trek franchise."
But will this new and exciting concept of reality Star Trek be in any way recognizable to its core fans?
"Unfortunately, that can't be a concern," said Ostroff. "Ratings and advertising revenue are what the business is about, and Americans love reality television. All we're doing is giving them what they want. Our job is to develop the best mainstream shows filled with as much accessible and entertaining idiocy as possible."
"I think Gene would be proud," said Berman. "We're making Star Trek available in an adaptable form that will thrive for generations to come. Wherever the most common base tastes are, we'll be there."
"I can't wait to see the public's reaction to the show's new direction," Braga said. "This show is going to be very light on technobabble, more so than any Trek series to date. Except maybe for the episode we have planned where the contestants will be chained together with their dates while in protective bio-gear at the microbiology research lab in Pasadena. That's gonna be a good one.
"This isn't your father's reality series," Braga added.