For 'Fear Factor: Getting Boring Is The Real Danger

After 4 Years, Reality Show Struggles to Stay Fresh;
The Limitations of Worms

HOLLYWOOD -- The seven people who create the maggot-eating contests and helicopter stunts that are the hallmark of NBC's reality series "Fear Factor" sat silently in a circle. Chief "gross-out wrangler" Scott Larsen was ready to pitch a new idea.

Mr. Larsen brandished a 2-foot-long plastic tube about an inch in diameter. Taking a big swig of bottled water -- think of it as "blended up worm chunks," he told everyone -- Mr. Larsen loudly emptied his cheeks into the tube, with the water spraying, for the most part, into a garbage can. On the show, he explained, another contestant's mouth would serve as the receptacle. That person would then have to spit the worm purée into a glass. The pair that fills the glass the fastest wins.

"I like it!" said Executive Producer Matt Kunitz, "especially the noise the spitting makes." Then came the bad news: "I'm just not sure standards and practices would approve that," he said. Though the network's taste arbiters found it perfectly fine to ask contestants to pick up dead rats with their teeth last season, Mr. Kunitz worried they might find this stunt tasteless. After all, network executives have been on heightened decency alert in the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl brouhaha.

Mr. Larsen slumped back in his chair, visibly deflated. "Maybe you should remind them we're heading into season five," he said.

When NBC launched "Fear Factor" in the summer of 2001, producers thought the offbeat game show would run for a few months, tops, flaming out once the novelty wore off. Four seasons and 14 million viewers-per-episode later, it's one of the biggest hits on TV -- and an important cash cow for NBC. Week after week, the show serves up vulgar new challenges for six contestants trying to win $50,000. So far, more than 250,000 people have auditioned for the privilege of gagging on live tarantulas on national TV.

But producers are having an increasingly hard time coming up with their trademark never-seen-before stunts. It's a predicament that underscores a fundamental problem of reality television. The industry rushed into such shows because they were cheap, fast ways to plug schedule holes. "There was no plan to sustain success," says Ron Simon, a curator at New York's Museum of Television & Radio. Traditional storytelling shows with continuing characters are scripted to last for years; to stay fresh, reality shows must reinvent themselves every few episodes. Or in the case of "Fear Factor," every week.

That reinvention is proving difficult. As Mr. Kunitz says, "there are only so many things you can do with a worm." To date, contestants have had to eat worms, sit in a coffin filled with worms, bury their head in worms and shower with syrup-covered worms. What about having people stamp on thousands of night crawlers with their bare feet and then drink the resulting brown paste from a crystal goblet? It's been done


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