Even people who detest his brand of reality shows would be well-advised not to wrestle Matt Kunitz in the mud.
For one thing, the guy just knows too much about mud.
For his newest hit, ABC’s pratfall extravaganza “Wipeout,” Kunitz and his researchers investigated what type of mud would offer the safest landing for contestants who, say, slip off gigantic red rubber balls while running an obstacle course, a maneuver that happens to be not just “Wipeout’s” money shot but virtually its entire plot line.
Simply mixing ordinary dirt with water won’t do, Kunitz said, because the soil will settle and harden on the bottom. Instead, the producers chose the clay used to make baseball pitchers’ mounds. “It’s $4,000 a truckload,” Kunitz, the former executive producer of NBC’s legendary gross-out contest “Fear Factor,” told me.
Hey, quality costs money. But this is the kind of dedication Kunitz brings to his craft. He’s one of very few TV producers who can repeatedly refer to one of the obstacles in his project called “big balls” and not burst out laughing.
“We’re not trying to solve the world’s problems,” Kunitz said, unnecessarily. “We’re just trying to entertain people in the summertime.”
His plan seems to be working. “Wipeout” is not a huge hit, a la “American Idol,” but it is the No. 1 new series of the summer so far. Ratings are growing; last week’s telecast leaped 13%, to 10.6 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The critics may hate it -- and oh, yes, most of them do -- but “Wipeout” looks here to stay a while. Production company Endemol USA, the entity behind “Fear Factor,” “Big Brother” and other shows, is confident of a renewal, although ABC has announced nothing yet.
“The question is not about will they, it’s about how many” additional episodes the network might order, David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, wrote me in an e-mail. The producers would like the series to transfer to the regular season, as did “Fear Factor,” not to mention “Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Survivor” and other unscripted perennials. But network executives are noncommittal. John Saade, ABC’s senior vice president of alternative series, told me the network sees “Wipeout” “as a good summer asset.” (Cautionary tales abound; last year, NBC moved “The Singing Bee,” a show that began even more strongly than “Wipeout,” to the fall lineup, where it promptly bombed.)
To Kunitz, “Wipeout’s” success puts to rest the notion, often advanced by those with a heavy investment in scripted entertainment, that the reality craze may be waning. Not much chance of that. During the writers strike that ended in February, executives used reality fare such as NBC’s “American Gladiators” to fill the gaps. And the No. 1 series of the regular season was Fox’s ethically dubious lie-detector show, “The Moment of Truth.”
“Wipeout” is proving that reality TV never goes away, it just recombines, like a science-fiction villain. An entire subgenre of on-air, YouTube-friendly humiliation contests -- some good-natured, others less so -- is now sweeping prime time. ABC already has “I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” which like “Wipeout” owes a debt to the batsu, or punishment, shows popular in Japan. (The Japanese have long cornered the market on unscripted sadomasochism played for chuckles; on YouTube, you can find the clip of a 1980s Japanese classic where a man clad in a straw hat and striped jacket quietly sidles up to passersby and then screams at the top of his lungs.)
Fox is doing an American adaptation of “Hole in the Wall,” another batsu show where contestants have to squeeze themselves through odd shapes that are cut into a moving partition. On Tuesday, G4 will debut “Hurl!,” which mixes stunts with the world of competitive eating, in hopes of inducing vomiting among contestants and possibly viewers. And the inevitable “Wipeout” copycats are coming, which Kunitz said doesn’t bother him a bit.
“I’ve already heard in the past couple days that the other networks and some of the other cable networks are now looking for similar shows, and that’s great,” he said. “Any time a reality show succeeds -- [speaking] as someone who makes a living off reality -- that’s a good thing for us.”
For a show that doesn’t even require a complete sentence to sum up its concept, “Wipeout” has led an amazingly charmed life. Kunitz understands the comparisons to Japanese shows such as “Takeshi’s Castle” -- rebroadcast on Spike as “MXC” -- but insists that “Wipeout” was really born from a desire to do a funny stunt series. He wanted to sell the show as “Fear Factor” meets “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Kunitz pitched the show to ABC with a producing partner, Scott Larsen, who coordinated many of the stunts on “Fear Factor.” “We pitched them at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon; by 4 o’clock, they were calling and saying, ‘Don’t go anywhere else,’ ” Kunitz said.
“Wipeout’s” secret weapon -- the thing that distinguishes it from the legions of similar shows -- is the addition of commentators John Anderson and John Henson, both of whom already had extensive experience cracking wise to snippets of video: Anderson on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Henson on E!'s “Talk Soup.” The pair write most of their own one-liners, Kunitz said, as the show doesn’t have a writing staff. “We purposely went out and found funny commentators,” he said.
What “Wipeout” won’t do is enhance Kunitz’s reputation among cultural critics who accuse reality TV of rotting Americans’ souls. In 2005, author Bernard Goldberg tossed some mud in Kunitz’s direction, putting the producer at No. 69 in his bestselling book, “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.” Kunitz’s alleged sin was “Fear Factor,” which was accused of polluting the culture with scenes of contestants gobbling horse entrails and the like.
“It’s kind of an honor,” he said of Goldberg’s list. “I look at my company; I think Michael Moore was No 1. I don’t mind being in that group of people.”
And if critics see “Wipeout” as more of the same in different packaging, Kunitz isn’t worried. “As long as someone’s talking about the show, that’s good,” he said. “I sleep very well at night.”
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.