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Choose one: reality show or reality

Times Staff Writer

Travel and television have always seemed a mismatch to me. Even when the star of the show is the inimitable Michael Palin, who has made a series of popular travel programs for the BBC, the result is inevitably stagy and false.

You see the host on a camel in a Sahara Desert sandstorm, but the very fact that you’re watching it on TV means he wasn’t braving it alone and knew the journey would turn out well from the moment the cameras started to roll.

The essence of travel’s appeal is surprise and serendipity, so the advent of unscripted TV reality shows, such as “Survivor” and now “Survivor: All-Stars,” seemed to promise something better for travel lovers like me. As it turns out, the “Survivor” shows make the exotic locales, from the Australian Outback to the Amazon basin, seem all the same, scantly distinguished backdrops against which people behave badly for a million-dollar jackpot.

I, for one, would rather sit on a park bench and read a guidebook or, better still, buy a plane ticket and go somewhere.

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Then I heard about “Airline” and “Worlds Apart,” two new cable TV reality shows specifically made for travel lovers.

“Worlds Apart,” in its first season on the National Geographic Channel on cable, gives “average” American families the chance to spend 10 days living with “average” families in largely undeveloped places such as Africa and India. Prospective families on the American side, chosen on the basis of a home-video application, must have two to three children ages 6 to 18, health insurance and two weeks to devote to the adventure.

National Geographic Channel field producers identify host families, whose chief qualification is the ability to speak English.

I’ve seen two “Worlds Apart” episodes. The first followed the Palmer family of East Brunswick, N.J., to the village of Korr in northern Kenya. In the second, the Russells of Birmingham, Ala., learned about life for members of the Frafra tribe in Longo, Ghana. In both cases, the host families seemed far more likable than their visitors, who had predictable problems coping with strange food, hole-in-the-floor toilets and the unequal division of labor between men and women. The American kids, especially, looked spoiled and superficial compared with the hard-working African young ones, with their bare feet and winning smiles.

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Both American families followed similar learning and acceptance curves: a honeymoon, then a crisis (usually caused by an American kid acting out) and a final arrival at respect for the Africans’ soulful way of life.

But I wanted less heartwarming and more culture shock. How, I wondered, did the Africans feel about their American visitors? I think the producers should show us what would happen if the host families spent 10 days in New Jersey and Alabama.

In a bizarre way, A&E; Network’s “Airline,” produced by the U.S. arm of London-based production company Granada, gives travelers more to think about, even though the series is dedicated to the ordinary -- and occasionally extraordinary -- hassles encountered by employees of Southwest Airlines at Chicago’s Midway Airport and LAX.

Who would want to veg out in front of the TV to that?

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But by following events on an average day -- when anything can happen, from squabbles with drunken passengers to an airport-clogging blackout -- the program gives people a chance to walk a mile in the shoes of the airline employee, thereby fostering one of the things travel is all about: understanding.

The idea stems from a similar series, now in its ninth season in Britain, that follows workers at EasyJet, a British economy airline patterned after Southwest. London-based producer Chris Carey said the show was ready to move to the U.S. in 2001, but heightened airport security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks slowed the U.S. series down.

One of Carey’s favorite segments involves a Southwest agent who must refuse to board a passenger because he smells badly.

Among the five “Airline” shows I saw, I especially liked “Team Effort,” broadcast Feb. 9, which documented what happened at Midway that August day last year when the lights went out in the Northeast and the Midwest. While grounded passengers stewed, griped and demanded free hotel rooms, Southwest customer service manager Colleen Bragiel rode to the rescue, placating stranded passengers when she could and rallying her troops. “She was like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon,’ ” Carey said.

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The airline gives employees the option of being followed around by a Granada crew, though they’re under no obligation to do so, said Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford.

When Granada approached Southwest with the idea, the airline was intrigued but careful. The program offered a great promotional opportunity, as well as dangers stemming from the unscripted reality show format. “At the end of the day, our president felt that if any airline could take on this interesting risk, it was Southwest,” Rutherford said. “Things don’t always go right, but we trust our employees.”

The airline sees rough cuts but doesn’t have editorial control of the program, which means it occasionally looks bad, as when a gate agent refuses to board a late arrival or an unaccompanied minor. Mostly, though, the Southwest crew seems to have the right, hard-working, long-suffering stuff, and “Airline” doesn’t look too stagy.

But let’s get real. Wouldn’t you rather fly Southwest than watch it on TV?

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