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FIRST PERSON

When reality hits home, watch out

Why was this person knocking on Mom's door? Turns out 'Wife Swap' was her new neighbor.

March 09, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Given the seeming ubiquity of so-called reality television, it was only a matter of time before it came knocking on the door and invading the neighborhood.

So it was that my mother, who lives on a quiet little street in Van Nuys, woke up last week to find a flier informing her that something called "Wife Swap," a new "reality show," was set to begin filming just a few houses away.

Now Mom, at 79, isn't exactly the target audience for most of these staged reality shows, though I did catch her watching "The Bachelor" once, just to discover what all the fuss was about. Moreover, her home seems to be the last place you would expect to find the typical shenanigans associated with "Joe Millionaire" or "The Real World."

Still, the location manager was nothing if not persistent, coming back multiple times (including after dark on a Sunday night, sending the dog into a tizzy) to secure the County & City of Los Angeles Filming Survey, which essentially asks residents to state any concerns they might harbor about "Wife Swap" coming to their block.

This wasn't seeking permission, a Los Angeles Film Office receptionist told me, but simply a courtesy to make sure there hadn't been several such productions on a single street -- which, given the proliferation of reality shows, seems increasingly possible. As the office's Web site notes, "Who wouldn't be mad if these big white trailers showed up one day, without warning?"

"Wife Swap," it turns out, is already a Top 10 hit in the U.K., which is exporting such programming to the U.S. faster than Colombia can ship coffee beans.

The title, however, is really not an accurate description. The premise involves two married women switching roles for two weeks -- following the conventions of the household they inherit in the first, then having their temporary families try to live by their rules in the second. And, yes, the thrown-together husband and wife sleep in separate rooms.

For some reason, though, ABC -- the network airing "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People" -- was tentative about the project. The network has agreed only to develop a prototype, which is where my mother's neighbor comes in, and a network spokesman couldn't say for sure whether the original title would survive.

"It would be a real shame if we don't call it 'Wife Swap,' " said Michael Davies, producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," who is overseeing the production for RDF Media. "I know this country was founded by Puritans, but this is a squeaky-clean television program."

Indeed, images of wild hot-tub parties (and an inordinate number of visits to Mom's house) quickly faded. Rather, RDF's Web site showed pictures of very average-looking people sitting around on the couch, which, from what I've seen, isn't particularly unusual in my mother's neighborhood.

According to the site, the series "lifts the lid on the choices different people make: how they divide up parenting, shopping and housework, spending priorities and what they want from their social life. Here is a rare opportunity to witness what it is like to live someone else's life and experiences."

If all goes well, the show could be on ABC this summer. To Davies, the concept "rejoices in the normality of daily family life," providing a basis for discussion. An episode in the U.K., for example, featured a black and white couple who had to overcome certain ingrained prejudices.

"The families learn quite a lot from it," he said. "The program has substance to it."

I'm sure Mom will feel better knowing that something substantial will be filming up the block, assuming the participants survive the requisite background checks -- which, given the track record of "reality" contestants, is hardly a slam dunk.

I did assure her that RDF has several legitimate credits, producing, among other things, the TLC cable series "Junkyard Wars" and "Perfect Match," a British dating show. Davies called them "observational documentary filmmakers" who remain a bit perplexed about the hoops that must be jumped through to film shows in the U.S.

Hard as it is to keep up with all the unscripted concepts being bandied about, the "Wife Swap" experience has put my mind at ease at least on one level. Apparently, if you just wait around a bit these days, the reality shows come directly to you.

*

Brian Lowry is a television columnist for The Times. He can be contacted at brian.lowry@latimes.com.

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